Chapter 72

If there had ever been an opportunity to sneak out of the room without confronting the Texan, that opportunity had clearly passed. The black-haired waitress was nowhere to be seen. The bubble of space around our table had previously only been one of impressions: the idea that everyone would pretend not to hear things discussed between professionals and, in return, those same professionals would extend similar courtesies. Now, there was an actual physical vacuum in our surrounding vicinity. Men and women both stopped their dances, their muttered conversations, and their raucous celebrations whenever they drew within a few yards of where we sat; then, as if by unspoken unanimous agreement, they found somewhere else to be.

That left the five of us sitting at the table, like a lonely island in a sea of humanity. Akumi and Sato responded to the Texan’s opening overture by defaulting to the same personalities they’d used on me, at first. Akumi sat up straighter and pulled her jet black hair up into a severe ponytail, clearing her vision and casting her cheekbones in a stark light. Kira slouched slightly and assumed a position that had to be uncomfortable, even though he stayed in that contorted shape without betraying the slightest hint of pain.

Those were their war faces, I realized. Without inside knowledge about their true natures, anyone the Twins dealt with would of course think of Akumi as the more reasonable partner. When she revealed even the slightest glimpse of her actual bloodlust, it would only serve to make Kira look even crazier…even though, in reality, he appeared to function as the steady center to their twisted family unit. They’d attempted to throw me off of my game using the same strategy, except that Mila had firsthand knowledge of their technique.

There was something to that. I couldn’t figure out exactly what that something might be, though.

Mila, for her part, didn’t visibly react to the Texan’s presence. She looked away from the Twins and focused on him, impaling him with the sheer force of her glare, but remained otherwise completely calm. And why wouldn’t she be calm? The Texan wasn’t a physical threat. No bodyguards loomed in his wake, crackling knuckles in anticipation of a fight. The man himself looked like he worked out, sure, but nothing about his demeanor hinted at any combat proficiency. My read on the man could be wrong, obviously, but I didn’t think that I was mistaken.

Mila, Akumi, and Sato all dealt with their problems by exuding a certain aura of control. When that failed, any of the three were capable of doling out extreme amounts of punishment to their enemies in an effort to forcibly make that positions known. I’d seen Mila go to work. If the Twins, either individually or together, were capable of producing even half as much chaos, then they would also qualify as the closest living equivalent to a weapon of mass destruction. In any job where security might be an issue, one of these three or some combination would be exactly the sort of thing I needed. Mila had saved me in Tangiers, after all, and again in Atlanta. She’d probably save my life from mortal peril several more times, before this whole fiasco was finished.

But that wasn’t how the Texan fought. Eschewing the customary trappings of power, he’d carved out a niche for himself as a trader of secrets. The knowledge contained within his head and whatever ledgers he kept for posterity was both less immediately dangerous than the Twins and Mila, but also exponentially more damaging. With a whisper into the right ear, he could probably kick-start a civil war in a criminal organization of his choosing. By making a phone call, he could make or break an assassination attempt. A wink, timed perfectly, could make up the difference between a successful theft and a disastrous trip to prison.

He fought with information. And, if this was to be any form of combat, that meant the burden of our defense fell squarely on my shoulders.

A deal,” I repeated, dragging out the word to give myself more time to think of to say. “What kind of deal did you have in mind?”

First things first,’ the Texan said. “You have something for me?”

Yes and no,” I said. The Texan raised an eyebrow and gestured for me to elaborate. “I have access to it and I can give you access, as well. It was too much information for me to carry around with me every day until we met.”

I’ll be honest,” he said, leaning over the table and lowering his voice to a conspiratorial tone. “I’ve never really been all that good with computers. Got…people to take care of that for me, in a pinch. Now, I could check in with my contact, but you know what?”

He left the question dangling in the air long enough that I sighed and gave him the answer he was looking for. “No, I don’t. What?”

I believe you,” the Texan said. “You don’t seem like the kind to just lie about business.”

It was my turn to raise an eyebrow.

About business,” the Texan said, stressing the operative word. “If I’m wrong, then I’m wrong. But knowing who I can trust to play it straight is worth losing a little bit of stolen information.”

That’s awfully kind of you,” I said.

It’s more pragmatic than anything. If I spent all night wondering which of my informants is telling me the truth and which ones are just lying to my face, I’d hardly have time for anything else.” He examined the table in front of him, then snagged a stuffed mushroom from one of the many plates on display. “Show me what you’ve got and I’ll get my people to take a look at it.”

And then we’re good?”

If everything’s the way it ought to be,” the Texan said, smiling.

I found a scrap of paper and wrote down a series of web addresses. I’d only recently created the servers, just before discovering the Mouse’s true identity, and hadn’t bothered to connect them with my network proper. Instead of storing the wealth of information Devlin and I had stolen from the Sovereign, I’d simply indexed the whole thing and uploaded them onto a series of FTP servers. With those addresses, the Texan – or whoever his tech specialist happened to be – would be able to peruse the information contained within at their leisure without requiring me to be there in person.

The Texan accepted the paper with a slight nod, tucking it into his pocket without taking his eyes of the remaining stuffed mushrooms. “You don’t mind, do ya?”

I shook my head. While he gathered the savory treats onto a conveniently empty plate, I formulated a plan of attack. I didn’t know enough about the Texan – what he wanted, what his limits were, what he might be willing to part with and where his absolute limit was -but I wasn’t going to have a chance to study the man, apparently. I’d have to play it by ear.

Or that was my plan, at least. The Texan threw yet another wrench into the works when he finally lifted his eyes from the plate of food, taking in Akumi and Sato in a single offhanded glance. “You two don’t work outside of Japan,” he said. “’less I’m mistaken, you’re a long way away from home.”

The Twins shared a look. The brief moment of eye contact wouldn’t have been enough to convey any significant information for lesser mortals, but they seemed to have carried on a full conversation in the space of a single eye blink.

Kira was the one who spoke. “We have our own business to handle,” he said. I noticed that he’d reverted back to stiff, heavily accented English. Another act, apparently, designed to make people underestimate him.

Well, I can see that,” the Texan said. “But both of the Sato twins out of Japan at the same time? Must have been something pretty damn important. Only I haven’t heard about anything big, so…did someone finally take out old Goto?”

The question came out of the blue. I reacted without thinking, but my sharp intake of breath was nothing compared to the noises of dismay and shock that escaped the Twins’ mouths.

What do you know?” Akumi asked. Her eyes narrowed dangerously and one hand crept out of sight beneath the table.

The Texan’s eyes flickered down to her disappearing hand, clearly acknowledging her intention, before he calmly met her gaze. “Not enough, apparently.”

I didn’t know the Twins well enough to calm them, but Mila did. She drummed her fingers against the tabletop just loud enough to get Akumi’s attention, then subtly shook her head. For a long moment, Akumi teetered on the brink of ignoring Mila’s suggestion and I prepared myself to flip a table over and use the crowd as cover. But common sense prevailed and cooler heads won out. Akumi placed both of her hands on the table, palms flat against the surface, and nodded to her brother.

Mila spoke instead. “I can’t speak for these two,” she said, pointing at each of the Twins in turn, “but my ward and I have had just about enough of people trying to impress us by knowing more than they should.”

You think I’m trying to impress you? If I was trying to do that, I’d start by telling everybody here what your real name is, Emilia.” The Texan held up both hands in the universal sign of surrender before Mila could do much more than growl. “Not that I’m going to do that, of course. Ain’t my style and I don’t got anything to gain. We all got secrets, right?”

What’s your point, then?” I asked.

Exactly what I said when I came over to begin with,” the Texan said. “You reached out to me before you left Atlanta. Said you had some information I might be interested in and that I might have ownership of some rumors you could make use of. I’m just trying to make a deal, darling.”

More than almost anything, I wanted to sit down and pick apart the Texan’s brains. For someone so heavily invested in the value of information, he seemed to be a complete black hole as far as personal details went. What I saw was, essentially, all I knew about him. It was all anyone seemed to know about him. With a proper profile, I’d be able to plan around his wordplay, to pierce through his charm and civility down to the core of what made him tick.

Barring that, I wished that Devlin wasn’t drunk. He’d probably be able to do at a glance that kind of deep character study that would require hours for me to pull off.

With an effort, I pushed down those thoughts and focused on the moment. Wishing for better times wouldn’t actually make things better; that burden was on me, and me alone.

You’ve noticed things going wrong lately, haven’t you?” I asked. I tried to mimic the ‘just between friends’ tone that Devlin occasionally used to draw someone in, but I doubted the efficacy.

You want to be a little more vague, sweetheart?”

You know exactly what I’m talking about,” I said. “Don’t play dumb.”

He considered his next words very carefully. “Let’s say that I do,” he said finally. “What about it?”

There are things you don’t know,” I said. “Things you can barely even guess at. If you can give me the information I’m looking for, maybe I can see fit to share some of what I’ve learned over the last three years.”

A mere whim drove me to lie about the time spent working for the Lady. If the Texan had sources worth the pay, it was possible he’d be able to track where we’d been by comparing it against a list of massive disruptions in the last six months. No reason to give him anything for free, if I didn’t absolutely have to.

Things I don’t know?” The Texan stroked at some wispy hair on his chin. “I think you might be operating under something of a misunderstanding, darling.”

Oh?”

He pushed a plate out of his way so that he could lean all of his weight on the table. “Let’s see what me and my sources have put together, then. See if maybe I’m a little more in the know than you seem to think.”

I leaned back in my chair and gestured for him to continue. Mila mirrored me, while the Twins sat up straighter and paid strict attention to every word that came out of the Texan’s mouth.

Let’s see,” he said. “Where to begin? You said you’ve been ferreting out this information over the last couple of years, so…hmm. That would’ve been right around that job in Paris, wouldn’t it?”

I tried to keep my face expressionless, even as I internally marveled at the accuracy of the Texan’s first guess.

Yeah,” the Texan said. “That’d have to be it. Was kind of a slow season for big jobs. Some drug deals, a few mergers, but not the kind of thing that you look like you’d get involved in. Messy stuff.”

I didn’t say anything, but Akumi did. “I remember,” she said. “We traveled across all of Japan during that time, on orders from Goto. He did not tell us what we were after and, eventually, he said we had done enough.”

The Texan reached into his pocket. I couldn’t hear the click of the recording device he must have activated, but I knew the motions from personal experience. I assumed that everyone at the table would have noticed – he wasn’t being particularly subtle about it – but neither Mila nor the Twins seemed to care. If anything, Akumi seemed slightly more eager than before.

That fits with what I’ve heard,” the Texan said. “You two were involved in putting down the Inagawa uprising?”

Akumi gave Kira a searching look. After a few seconds, he sighed and nodded. “Among other things,” he said.

Interesting. Not important to this, but still interesting.” The Texan turned his attention back to me. “Where were we? Three years ago? So there was Paris, and then…Russia? No. Not Russia; I know all of the fellas involved in that catastrophe. Then…ah! There was that bank job in Limassol,wasn’t there? The one where nothing was stolen, but a whole mess of people ended up dead including high ranking members of the Bratva?”

He smiled at his own insight,while I tried to keep a stony expression on my face. It didn’t seem to stop him.

If that’s right,” the Texan said, “then it’s easy to figure out the highlights and draw out a pattern. You had the Limassol job, then all of that craziness in London, then Macao, and South America.”

What makes you think there’s a connection?” I risked asking.

What are the other options?” he countered. “High profile jobs, all of them, but no one stepping up to claim responsibility? No bragging, no strutting around? I don’t buy that.”

It’s possible,” I said. But it was a weak denial and everyone at the table knew it as soon as the words left my mouth.

The Texan shook his head, smiling to himself. “Either all of this is random and unconnected – and I’ve been doing this too long to start believing in coincidence – or there’s something else going on. Seeing as you hunted me down at my place of relaxation, I’m assuming there’s something else going on.”

He’d missed several key details, but that was to be expected. If the Texan was drawing conclusions from intelligence, collected by his various little birdies, then he couldn’t possibly know about the subtler things we’d accomplished. There was no record of Devlin’s time in prison, or of the Lady’s efforts to free him ahead of schedule. He should have known about Avis, but it was always possible that he’d never thought to examine the information he himself had passed on to us at the Green Light gala. He hadn’t drawn the right connections between us and Hill’s dramatic downfall.

Still, it was damned frightening how close his guesses came to the truth. With the appropriate context, he might have figured everything out all on his own. But he knew nothing about the Lady, so he was following the information down the wrong trail. That wouldn’t hold for long, though. I reminded myself that his affable demeanor wasn’t necessarily his true personality. Hell, even if he was as nice as he appeared to be, that didn’t mean he was stupid. In order to rise to a position worthy of a seat at the Green Light gala, the Texan almost had to possess a ruthless disposition.

So. I’ll show you mine,” the Texan said, “if you’ll show me yours. Obviously, you’re all tied up in this mess, one way or another. I’ve got informants going dark, long-time allies going at each other with knives in the dark, and blood enemies making protection deals. None of this makes sense, but you…I’m thinking you know exactly what’s going on.”

Feigning ignorance wasn’t a viable strategy anymore. The Texan wouldn’t have agreed to a meeting in the first place if he hadn’t had a fair amount of suspicion about my involvement in developing events. It was the only card I had to play, though, and I spent a few moments considering the best way in which to play it.

There are some people with skills I’m interested in,” I said carefully. “Computers, network security…that kind of thing. It’s not my strong suit.”

Mila shifted her weight a millimeter, but otherwise didn’t move. It was such a small movement that I didn’t think even the Twins would notice it and they certainly wouldn’t be able to read it. At least, that was what I hoped.

That’s easy enough,” the Texan said. “Depending on what kind of job you’re looking at, shouldn’t be too tough to rustle up a few specialists. What’d you have in mind?”

I shook my head. “I’m looking for more…uniquely talented individuals. Not the kind of people you just keep on a Rolodex. They might even be more difficult to find than normal, lately. You know, with everything going on in the underworld these days.”

The Texan’s face showed his confusion for a few heartbeats before he understood my meaning. A strange interplay of emotions flashed across his expression. I wasn’t able to catch all of them, but the ones I was able to register and understand resonated with interest, greed, bemusement, and…was that fear? What did he have to be afraid of?

You’re telling me that you know what’s going on? Who’s pulling these strings? What they’re after?” he asked.

I picked my words with excruciating caution. “I don’t know names,” I said. “But I can point you in the right direction of the people responsible for all the confusion. And trust me: you won’t find anyone else willing to do as much.”

That was true, from a certain perspective. I didn’t know the Lady’s name, or the names of the Magi. And, if I was willing to contort my viewpoint, I could believe that the Magi were ultimately capable for the tumult. If they hadn’t suborned Asher so many years ago, then Devlin wouldn’t have been betrayed at the conclusion of the Paris job. If he hadn’t been betrayed, the Lady wouldn’t have been able to recruit him – and, ultimately, the rest of us -to her cause. If we hadn’t been recruited, who knew how things would have played out?

Even if that didn’t quite hold water, I wasn’t overly bothered by the deception. If the timer ran out, and the Mouse gained access to my entire network, it wasn’t just my life on the line. I couldn’t imagine any scenario where Devlin wouldn’t cheerfully throw himself on any and every available sword, if he thought it would buy me another minute of freedom. Mila would do the same and Michel would be right behind her in line.

Virginia wouldn’t be content to let her baby granddaughter fall to the sorts of scoundrels the Mouse would send after me, but she didn’t fully understand the stakes. To her, the Magi were dangerous, sure, but they weren’t dangerous. Just as they’d very publicly assassinated Hill for his temerity, the Magi wouldn’t blink at killing an aging heiress. After her…I didn’t know how far the Magi would go to ensure their presence remained a secret.

No, my conscience wouldn’t trouble me if I lied to the Texan.

He gave me a searching look and I could almost hear the gears clicking in his mind, as he weighed what I was asking for versus what I had to offer. His lips parted for an instant, then closed, then opened again.

No,” the Texan said. “I got to say no.”

No what?”

No deal,” he clarified. “What you’re asking for…I might be able to pull it off, but it’d cost me. And I’m pretty sure I can get my hands on what you’re offering without having to make a trade for it.”

My mouth dropped open. I couldn’t help it. The Texan, a man who presumably made his living off of secrets, was turning down a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to learn the larget secret of all?

He stood up abruptly, jostling the plates and glasses on the table in the process. “No hard feelings, darling,” he said. “I hope we can still do business again later. And I’ll tell you what: me and the chef got an arrangement. Drinks are on me tonight, in apology for your flight out here.”

I tried, and failed, to formulate a last minute sales pitch. The Texan melted into the crowd before a single word made it past my lips.

That didn’t work,” Mila said helpfully. “What’s our next option?”

The Texan had been our only option. Without information, there wasn’t any feasible way to track down the remaining members of the Community before my network’s last-ditch defenses fell and the Mouse was free to rampage through my network. If he’d decided, by sheer dumb luck or obstinance or whatever reason motivated him, to remove himself from the field, that left us standing out there without cover or protection.

Everyone at the table – Mila, Akumi, and Sato – watched me expectantly. I shook my head, refusing to make eye contact with them.

I…I don’t know.”

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Chapter 71

A rush of contradicting ideas popped into my head all at once, urging me to run, to hide, to play it cool, to flip a table as a distraction…all that and more, instantly crystal clear in my mind’s eye. The ultimate effect of those conflicting instincts was that I sat at the table, frozen in place and fixated by the Texan’s unflinching stare.

The black-haired woman was still talking to him – she must not have noticed the expression of dawning realization as it spread across his face – and he nodded absently to whatever it was that she was saying. She’d turned slightly, angling in such a way that I could no longer read her lips. The Texan didn’t blink or move a single muscle.

Don’t turn around,” I said, just as Mila started to do exactly that. “Just…don’t move.”

I’m going to have to move,” Mila said. But she stayed still. “What’s wrong?”

I started to voice my concerns, but stopped as a thought occurred to me. The Magi wasn’t a common name for the criminal cabal we were targeting. Most denizens of the underworld, in fact, didn’t even know they existed. Unless the black-haired woman and the Texan had, through entirely different means, landed on the exact same moniker that the Lady and my team used, there had to be another reason for her use of the term.

She couldn’t have gotten it from us, though. There were enough people talking in the underground speakeasy that no one could possibly have overheard the few seconds of conversation I’d shared with Mila on the topic. Besides, she hadn’t been anywhere near us when I’d spoken the name out loud to begin with. Barring some supernatural power, then, there wasn’t any way for her to…

My train of thought slowed and I took the opportunity to walk back through every interaction I’d had since entering the speakeasy. We’d been ushered straight to the table, owing to Mila’s mysterious connection to the proprietors. Mila had ordered food from a special menu, so there wasn’t any way that someone could have known in advance which plates to bug. But I had bumped into the black-haired lady once. She’d displayed a considerable amount of grace and dexterity for someone caught off guard. Far more dexterity, in fact, than I would have expected from anyone except for Devlin on his very best days.

As subtly as possible, I patted myself down. There was nothing in my front pants pockets that didn’t belong, and nothing in my back pockets, either. In the outside jacket pocket, though, I felt an oblong shape that I couldn’t remember picking up before stepping out for the evening.

I didn’t need to remove the listening device to know what it was. Glancing over to where the Texan and the black-haired woman conferenced, I saw that he’d finally allowed her to divert his attention. Without making a sound, I winked broadly at Mila and then tapped my ear. When she opened her mouth to respond, I frantically waved her back into silence. I touched my ear a second time, then my mouth, and shook my head.

The light of understanding came on behind her eyes. Her body went completely motionless for an instant, like a statue, and the sense of impending violence sharpened around her.

What do you want to do?” Mila asked.

Nothing, right now,” I answered.

You’re sure?”

I wasn’t. Our conversation earlier echoed in my thoughts, alongside the fragmented images of a dozen different escape plans. Was I waiting because it was the prudent, intelligent thing to do? Or was I just too frightened to commit to a single plan, for fear that it might backfire on me later?

Was there a functional difference at the moment?

Until we know more about the…situation,” I said, “it’s probably better to keep our options open.”

Mila nodded slowly, but her aura didn’t lose any of its intensity. “It’s your call, for the moment.”

Translation: if she felt that we were in serious danger, Mila wasn’t going to obey any order to stay her hand or refrain from violence. I didn’t have any idea how many of the speakeasy’s occupants could be brawlers or bodyguards like her and I didn’t want to be anywhere Mila if she decided to cut loose. At the same time, I could at least breathe a little easier knowing that her choices weren’t entirely dependent on my decisions. No matter what happened, I could at least be secure in the knowledge that Mila was operating as an incredibly violent safety net.

That didn’t alleviate any of the other pressures on my mind, though. The Texan was rapidly collecting enough information to start connecting dots. Worse, he’d started gathering the same knowledge I’d planned to use as a bargaining chip all on his own. He knew the name of the Magi, from my own lips, even if he didn’t necessarily have the appropriate context to know exactly what the Magi were. And, if he didn’t already know about the various jobs we’d been pulling across the globe, he knew that Mila and I felt personally responsible for the fiasco in Macao. It wouldn’t take him much time, if any at all, to take the little logical hop and figure things out.

I needed to get out of the speakeasy. That much was obvious. I just wasn’t sure if beating a hasty retreat would be worth the hassle, or if that move would tip my hand too much. For the moment, at least, the Texan and his informant – because, who else could the black-haired woman possibly be? – only knew that I’d seen him in the bar. Running away could reveal my awareness of her little trick with the listening device. Staying, however, ran the risk of even more valuable information slipping into his grasp.

The Twins returned from wherever they’d gone. Akumi sat next to me this time. She’d removed the suit jacket and folded it neatly over one arm. I caught the scent of cigarette smoke from her shirt as she settled into place and reached out for the nearest bottle on the table.

Akumi does not like to argue in front of strangers,” Kira said, unprompted.

What did you two have to argue about?” Mila asked.

Whether or not the two of you are trustworthy,” Akumi said. She elected to skip the shot glass entirely, throwing back a mouthful of liquor straight from the bottle.

You know my record,” Mila said. “You know how I play things.”

What my sister means,” Kira interjected, “is that she is not sure of your loyalties. We are not sure.”

Akumi downed another shot and then picked up where her brother left off. “You will not break a contract. You will protect your ward, no matter what.”

This is admirable,” Kira said.

For the first time since I’d met them, Akumi spoke over her brother, as though he hadn’t opened his mouth to say anything at all. “But you do not have principles of your own,” she said, boring into Mila with nothing more than a stare like a laser. “If you had accepted the contract of whoever killed Goto, we have no doubt that you would be very honorable as you tried to kill us.”

I felt my jaw drop open and was powerless to close my gaping mouth. Without blinking, Akumi had launched a devastating attack against Mila’s morals while asking Mila for help…or had she? In the world of for-hire bodyguards and mercenaries, was it a bad thing to have a shifting sense of right and wrong? Or had Akumi given Mila a compliment in some ass-backwards, arcanely convoluted way by praising her commitment to the job?

Whatever reaction I’d expected Mila to have, I would have been wrong. She moved the plate in front of her to one side and casually rested both of her elbows on the tabletop, meeting Akumi’s glare with one of her own.

Try?” Mila asked.

You have talent,” Akumi said, “but my brother and I are not like the people you used to hunt.”

I never said you were,” Mila replied. “But if the three of us ever got into it, we all know that I’d take at least one of you with me. Maybe both.”

You would die, as well.”

Maybe. Probably, in fact. Are you sure I wouldn’t pay that price to keep my people safe?”

Tension flared between Akumi and Mila like an exposed live wire, crackling with naked heat. I could almost swear that everyone in the speakeasy shifted away from our table without consciously realizing they were doing. I certainly started to wish I were somewhere, other than seated at the same table with three trained killers, at least two of which could barely contain their bloodlust at an otherwise civil meeting.

Mila,” I said, in a warning tone.

Akumi,” Mila said, focusing her attention on the Japanese woman, “we aren’t enemies. I happen to like you and your brother. You’re right; I’ll protect my clients right up until the end of the contract, even if that means going against people I happen to respect. But I don’t have to agree with them to do it.”

We do not – did not – always agree with what Goto-san did,” Kira said. He didn’t appear at all bothered by the oppressive atmosphere brewing between his sister and Mila.

What is your point?” Akumi asked.

I’m saying that, so that you’ll believe me when I say this: I don’t work for the people who you’re running from. Neither do the people under my protection.”

So,” Akumi said, “you are offering…what, exactly? Help?”

As much as I can give without compromising my people,” Mila said.

And beyond that?”

Mila shrugged. “Beyond that, we’ll see. I don’t want to talk specifics until all of us know more about what’s going on. But, for right now, it’d be safe to assume that we’re on the same general side of things.”

Akumi digested that information silently while she picked over the cold remains of her food. It was a good three minutes before she spoke again. By that time, the Texan and the black-haired woman had left their nook. Neither was anywhere that I could see but, at the same time, I couldn’t begin to imagine what sort of tunnels ran underneath the Mockingbird complex.

You know more than you are telling us,” Akumi said finally.

Mila nodded. “So do you. I don’t buy for a second that Goto sent you the investigate without telling you as much information about the kind of business he was in before you got on the plane. Don’t forget; I’ve worked for him more than a few times.”

Somehow, that tidbit of information didn’t even surprise me. Of course, Mila had done work for the Yakuza in the past. Why wouldn’t that be the case?

There are things we cannot discuss with outsiders,” Kira said. “Not even with…friends or exterior colleagues.”

And I’ve got confidentiality to worry about,” Mila said. “It’s fine. I get it. I’m just saying, we shouldn’t pretend that we’re being open and honest.”

What, then?” Akumi asked. “My brother and I are left in the same position? You owe us a favor.”

Mila tilted her head and raised an eyebrow. “And it’s a favor I intend on repaying. But you have to figure out how you want to go about calling it in, and you need to know exactly what you want to ask for.”

Akumi’s expression darkened, while Kira nodded thoughtfully to himself.

I’d already interjected my thoughts into the conversation once before. Any chance of the Twins ignoring me had been thrown away. I didn’t see any reason why I should keep quiet now, then. It couldn’t make things worse, after all.

Everyone needs to take some time to think about things,” I said, garnering attention from everyone else at the table. I suspected that the black-haired woman was also listening attentively to every word I spoke. “You two don’t want to reveal too much right now and Mila doesn’t seem willing to put all of her figurative cards on the table right now. Cool. How about we separate, give this the proper amount of consideration, and meet again later on to see what we can do for you?”

Akumi shot her brother a look and it was one I recognized. During my childhood, it was the same look people had worn when my aging grandmother spoke up in the middle of a business deal and rammed her terms down the opposing business’ metaphorical throats. That look said: is she actually the one in charge?

I wasn’t, of course, but I thought a reminder of Mila’s current employment status might provide her with a little more cover. She could go rogue whenever she wanted to or, whenever the terms outlined in her original contract with the Lady dictated – but the Twins didn’t know that. If it turned out that we had to cut them loose, at least we could make sure that their relationship with Mila would continue with as small of an interruption as possible.

Mila shifted minutely in her seat, but didn’t say anything to contradict me. After a few moments of thought, Akumi relaxed. She didn’t slump down into her chair or smile or anything like that. The aura of tangible, imminent violence dimmed back down to a lower level of intensity and she allowed herself to release some of the tension in her arms and shoulders. Kira, who hadn’t visibly demonstrated anything resembling his sister’s hair trigger, let out a long, slow breath.

Your ward has a point,” Akumi said. “There is no reason that we cannot come to an…agreement.”

I don’t see why we wouldn’t be able to work things out,” Mila said. “We’ve done it before and this isn’t any different.”

Kira’s eyebrow shot up. “Goto is either dead or dethroned. The underworld in Japan is in a state of disarray like nothing we have ever seen. And you are inviting your charges to take part in discussions about things they should know nothing about.”

Your point?” Mila asked.

Kira shook his head. “I would say that this is very different from anything we have done before.”

I snorted before I could help myself. When Kira turned his gaze to me, I shrugged. “You don’t even know,” I said.

The expression on his voice flickered momentarily from calm consideration, sharpening into an instant of shrewd analysis. The moment passed a heartbeat later but, in that single instant, I was reminded that both of the Twins were brawlers of the highest caliber. Even Mila had acknowledged their abilities, in a roundabout way. Just because Kira didn’t radiate danger like his sister, that didn’t mean I should take him lightly.

Sorry,” I said quickly. “Uh…stress. I’m under a lot of stress.”

You would have to be,” Akumi said, “or else you would not be paying Mila’s ridiculous price.”

Kira poured the remainder of his sake bottle into one of the cups, downed it, and stood up from the table. “We will be in touch,” he said to Mila.

You’re staying in town?” Mila asked.

There is nowhere else for us to go,” Akumi said. She eyed the lone remaining bottle of liquor on the table for a long while before finally getting to her feet. “At the moment, you are our only lead. If you will not help us, then…we will have to find another way to acquire the information we seek.”

We had plans to stay in the area for at least three days, maybe more depending on what we managed to get out of the Texan and how we endeavored to use that information. As long as the Twins didn’t travel too far, we’d still be able to point them in the Magi’s direction without getting directly involved. Two people with Mila’s skillset and nothing to lose could do a staggering amount of damage to any operation that fell in their sight line.

It wasn’t a perfect solution to this newest wrinkle, but it did have the marks of a potential solution. All we had to deal with now was –

The Texan rapped his knuckles twice against the table top. Each impact sounded like a miniature rifle shot, painfully audible even with the general dim of the speakeasy providing background white noise.

No need to wait for all that,” the Texan said. “You’re all already here, after all. Why not talk turkey while the opportunity’s sitting in front of us?”

I froze up again for a few precious seconds. I recovered quickly, but I didn’t doubt that those few moments of hesitation had provided the Texan with a glimpse into my psyche. I didn’t want to know what he’d do with that.

Excusing what this fine lady already owes me,” the Texan said, gesturing at me, “it seems like we all find ourselves in a strange situation.”

And how is that?” I asked. I was surprised to hear how steady my voice was.

You both want information,” he said. “And I’m feeling like you both might want the same kind of information. But, if what I’m guessing at is right, it’s a seller’s market right now. Nobody’s looking for me, but a lot of people are looking for the group of you.”

What’s your point?” Mila asked.

The Texan leaned back in his chair and spread his arms wide. “You all came here, looking to make a deal for your own personal reasons,” he said. “So. Why don’t we make a damn deal, then?”

Chapter 70

Over several plates filled with a variety of fried foods, as well as no fewer than two bottles of alcohol split between the four of us, Akira and Kira explained their situation.

For them, it had started in the wake of the team’s success in Macao. Their Yakuza boss, a man named Goto, had invested huge sums of money into a joint venture with the Triads in an unprecedented demonstration of unity and solidarity. When that deal had been inked, the underworld hadn’t yet been been forced to adapt to the ripples caused by Hill’s dramatic death. If news from England had made its way to Tokyo quickly enough, perhaps Goto would have found a way to extricate his money from the joint fund but, unfortunately, we’d moved too quickly.

Instead of fury at the loss of funds, Goto had apparently been motivated by curiosity. So he’d tasked his two top enforcers to hunt down the perpetrators of the crime and to bring them back to face him. Whether that reckoning would have ended in painful death or unorthodox job offer wasn’t made clear to the Twins but, at the same time, details weren’t generally things they concerned themselves with.

If that had been all, it was possible that they would never have reached out to Mila. Akumi and Kira had shared a suspicion that Mila had been tasked to protect the thieves while they worked, but it had never occurred to them that she might be involved in a more personal – which was to say, non-mandated – manner. The actions of her clients did not reflect on Mila herself, according to whatever strange code these people followed, and the Twins had mutually decided to leave Mila out of things unless absolutely necessary.

It had taken less than a month of concentrated searching before it became absolutely necessary to reach out to Mila.

What happened?” Mila asked.

I was content to let her do the talking. The Twins didn’t know how involved I was in the affair and, through telepathy, Mila had reached the same conclusion as me: what they didn’t know about the team wouldn’t hurt them. Besides, while their loyalties didn’t make them direct enemies or adversaries, it did mean that they weren’t on our side either.

At first, we thought that the Triads themselves might have stolen the money,” Akumi said. She poured herself a shot of bourbon, then downed it in a single fluid motion. She didn’t even grimace at the taste of the liquor. “So we went to the source, asked some questions about the people who should have known something.”

But we could not find anyone with information to share,” Kira added. He toyed with one of the larger rings around his left thumb idly. “It was if the money disappeared into thin air.”

But that cannot happen,” Akumi said. “It must have gone somewhere.”

I wondered if their tendency to speak in turn was an affectation, designed to throw people off of their guard, or if it was a natural thing that all twins did. Either way, it was unnerving as hell and forced me to keep shifting my attention from one side of the table to the other with every sentence.

I don’t do the financial stuff,” Mila said, “but even I know that you’re supposed to follow the money. That’s step one, isn’t it?”

Kira nodded. “And we tried to do that. But, when we looked deeper into the fund, we discovered a large amount of money that Goto-san knew nothing about it.”

Akumi blew air from her nostrils and snatched a fry off of Mila’s plate, earning a warning glare from Mila herself. “Or it is money that Goto only claims to know nothing about it. He has kept secrets from us before.”

Kira lifted his eyebrow. “Why would he keep that secret and then send us to investigate?”

He has his own reasons for doing what he does,” Akumi said, shrugging. “They do not always make sense.”

Kira considered that thought for a few seconds and then nodded begrudgingly. “I suppose.” He turned back to Mila. “Apologies; we have disagreed over this very topic many times since things…went wrong.”

Mila accepted the apology with a curt wave. “It’s fine. You were following the money and then what?”

The additional funds raised questions about who would benefit from cooperation between Goto’s faction and the Triads,” Akumi said. “Perhaps, we thought, a third party would have profited even more if that cooperation failed. But the deeper we searched, the more difficult it became to track the finances.”

If she had not gone to school for business,” Kira said, “I do not think we would have made it as far as we did to begin with.”

Twin spots of color bloomed in Akumi’s cheeks. She nodded politely to her brother, acknowledging the compliment without appearing too cocky about it, and gave Mila’s plate a long look. After a second, Mila sighed and gestured for Akumi to filch another fry.

Akumi took a bite of the fry, chewing thoughtfully on it for several seconds, before she continued her earlier thought. “I was able to to find a bank in Gibraltar, listed under an organization I have never heard of, before everything went wrong.”

I’d been listening to the story with rapt attention already. I knew about the intrigues and shifting alliances of the underworld, but only in an indirect, detached sort of way. Devlin and I had been a team; when necessary, we’d worked with old friends, or contracted out on a case-by-case basis. But the larger organizations – the Mafia, primarily, or any of their international counterparts – hadn’t been a factor. We worked our jobs, not making any additional trouble when we didn’t have to and paying a tax when disruption was unavoidable; those organizations, in turn, tolerated the existence of a thriving hub for short-term criminal employment within their territories. The arrangement had been in place since long before I became a hacker. If anyone knew when it had started, they weren’t talking.

Listening to a member of the Yakuza casually explain how her organization was structured, who she took orders from, and the tension between Japanese and Chinese gangs was enlightening, in a way that went beyond simple memorization. I could see the discipline in Kira’s body, the way he carried himself. Even Akumi, whose professional attire only served to contrast her more…relaxed demeanor, possessed an undeniable aura of authority. These weren’t people who dipped a toe into the underworld on occasion, either for protection or to fill a hole in an otherwise complete team; Akumi and Kira were lifelong criminals, who had bought wholesale into the lifestyle and who had chosen to use their skills for a single employer.

Compared to them, my criminal activities were essentially just a hobby. It was their career. It was their life.

Still, while I’d already been invested in their story, my interest really spiked when Akumi mentioned the bank account in Gibraltar that she’d managed to unearth. When we’d received our tip about the Magi’s involvement in the Macao business, I’d dedicated several days in a focused effort to unearth more information about where the money had come from. With all of the funds tied up in so many diverse business interests, and without any outside knowledge about what other parties might also be investing, I’d reached a dead end fairly quickly and hadn’t been able to get any farther than two or three steps into the money trail.

I tapped Mila’s ankle, where the table provided some concealment from the Twins. She didn’t betray anything as she stretched, snatched a fry away from Akumi’s questing fingers, and causally steered the conversation towards the area I was interested in.

Gibraltar? How’d you do that?”

Akumi shrugged modestly. “We have dealt with internal theft in the past,” she said, “and we thought it would be useful to become better able to spot false trails in the future.”

Kira sipped from his sake cup. He didn’t make any great noise or interrupt his sister with any gesture, but she stopped and deferred to him. “You,” he said, “learned how to to spot false trails. That was never one of my talents.”

If it is something that I can do, then it is something that we can do. There is much that you can do that I cannot, after all.”

Even so.”

Mila cleared her throat, loudly and deliberately. “You’re both very intelligent and skilled,” she said. “But, back to the problem you need help with?”

The Twins exchanged a look, probably communicating entire volumes worth of subtext in a single instant of eye contact. Kira took another sip of sake and bowed his head slightly in deference for his sister to continue.

If there was another trail to follow,” Akumi said, “I could not find it. It seemed as though the money simply appeared in Gibraltar and was sent, by means I could not discover, into the joint account. When I called Goto to report my findings, he was…no longer there.”

What do you mean by that?” Mila asked.

We do not know,” Kira said. “That is the problem. Goto-san was an unconventional man, in many ways, but he has never been the type to send us to chase down shadows.”

And he would never leave us without support or further instructions, if he thought that was necessary,” Akumi finished. She narrowed her eyes at me over her shot glass, before downing another mouthful of bourbon.

We all sat in silence for a few moments, digesting that information. I expected Mila to point out the obvious verbal slip in Kira’s story; when she didn’t, I realized that I was going to have to speak up and enter the conversation.

Was,” I said, directing the word to Kira. “You said was. Why?”

Kira fidgeted slightly in his seat. From most people, I would have considered the movement just the involuntary action of someone settling into a more comfortable position. But I’d been around Mila long enough to draw some conclusions about people in her line of work.

Rule number one: they didn’t get uncomfortable, in the way that Devlin or I might. If they moved at all, it was as significant a tell as if buckets of sweat had started pouring down their faces.

You can trust her,” Mila said. “Trust me, she won’t go repeating anything you say here.”

And how can you be so sure of that?” Akumi asked. “It would not be the first time that your judgment has been…in error.”

Mila visibly flinched and I guessed that she was referring to Aiden.

I have nothing to gain from spreading stories,” I said, hopefully saving Mila from confronting an ugly memory by stepping in. “Besides. If the two of you are in trouble, I’d have to be insane to bring that kind of attention down on me.”

Which was true. I was, after all, clearly quite insane.

Akumi and Kira conferred with each other in another of those silent, meaningful glances. Kira tilted his head finally and gave his sister a small nod. She sighed, reached out for the emptied bottle of bourbon, and muttered something that sounded vile under her breath.

We have contacts in Tokyo,” she said. “People that do not work for Goto or for any of his contemporaries, but who are still aware of the movement of things, who follow gokudo.”

I mentally deconstructed that sentence and put it back together in a way to made sense to me. “You mean the underworld?”

Akumi gave me a blank look.

Places like this,” I said, gesturing at our surroundings. “Where people who do what you do come to talk, to share information.”

Yes,” Akumi said, “like that.”

When we could not contact Goto,” Kira said, “we reached out to those contacts and asked them if they knew anything about what was going on.”

And?” Mila asked. “What’d they say?”

They told us not to come home,” Akumi said. “There were dangerous people asking questions about where we’d gone and where we’d be headed next.”

She raised a hand to gesture for a waiter, but the black-haired server was already nearby with a fresh bottle of bourbon. She dropped it off on the table and departed without saying a word. Idly, I wondered if tipping was appropriate in the underworld, or if that would be seen as a foolish display of wealth.

But you’re dangerous people,” I said. “And Goto runs his corner of Tokyo, if I’m not misunderstanding you. He isn’t running interference for you?”

I caught the sports metaphor as soon as it passed my lips and silently cursed Devlin for introducing it into my lexicon. Akumi either knew the metaphor or she sussed out its meaning on her own, because she only paused for a brief instant before answering my question.

If what we are hearing is correct,” she said, “he is not running anything, at the moment. One of the many factions struggling for control of his organization forced him into a…permanent retirement.”

Excuse us,” Kira said suddenly. He stood up from the table, polite to a fault. “Before we can discuss this any further, my sister and I must discuss matters.”

It was a strange point in the conversation for him to assert that desire, but I needed time to digest what they’d already told us. Akumi stood up, joining Kira, and the two of them stepped over to an empty table only a few yards away.

I sat back in my chair, stunned into silence, while my brain struggled to create a cohesive picture from the scattered dots of Akumi and Kira’s story. Their boss, in an attempt to recoup losses that we’d caused, had suddenly fallen victim to an internal uprising. Something must have happened to unsettle the balance of power and I strongly doubted that our theft had been the final catalyst.

It was more likely that the Twins’ search had prompted some third party to take action, in order to protect their secrecy. I’d known, via the Lady, that the Magi were involved in Macao’s gambling circles; Akumi and Kira hadn’t been privy to the same knowledge. By poking around in the finances and successfully tracing their source as far back as Gibraltar, Akumi must have put the Magi on alert. With the actions of my team as a constant needling presence in their side, they must have overreacted and decided to oust a crime lord to cancel any and all questions about their activities.

But they hadn’t severed every potential tie, yet. Akumi and Kira were still roaming free. They knew more about the Magi’s connection to the stolen money than anyone else, except for my team and the Lady herself. And, if the Magi couldn’t find us, they’d have to settle for closing every opening they could.

I didn’t feel bad about Goto’s presumed death, which didn’t bother me as much as it probably should have. He’d been a Yakuza boss and no small amount of blood would have been on his hands. Of course, we had set the dominos in motion with our own actions, but the life of a crime boss wasn’t without risks. Eventually, the rival faction would have made a move, even without our impetus, and he would have either killed or been killed by his subordinates. That was the price of the life he’d chosen to live.

What upset me was the implication of his death. For six months, my team had devoted themselves to sole purpose of destabilizing the Magi’s power base enough that they would make a mistake and offer us an opportunity. We only needed their real names for the Lady. After that, it would be on her shoulders to deal with them in whatever manner she saw fit. But, in our single-minded mission, we’d played an integral part in the dissolution of old alliances and the formation of new, more volatile collaborations. What we did was only easy for us, because we didn’t have to stay in the area after we’d finished the job.

Goto had died because we’d robbed the Macao casinos. Hill had been killed because we’d successfully trussed him up with his own crimes and inadvertently handed him over to a dirty Interpol agent. Fatima had slit Mamoud’s throat, because we’d provided him with an opportunity to make a play for power. All of those individuals had been criminals, seeking greater and greater authority over their local underworlds, financed by the Magi; but we were also criminals. None of us were innocent. Was I really in a position to judge someone else for the lengths they’d go to, when I’d been perfectly content sitting on the sidelines while Devlin, Mila, and Michel risked their lives every time I planned out a job and sent them into the fray?

They pissed off the Magi, didn’t they?” Mila asked.

Her question jolted me out of my thoughts. “I can’t think of any other possibility.”

What do you want to do about them?”

I blinked. “What do you mean?”

Mila gave me a flat look. “You and Devlin,” she said, “have a tendency to collect people like lost pets. If Akumi and Kira don’t have anywhere to go back to, that means they’re perfectly positioned for the two of you to rescue them, or whatever it is that you do.”

It was a possibility I hadn’t really considered before. Now that Mila had brought it up, though, I found it difficult to find a flaw in that idea. Akumi and Kira were obviously talented at their jobs. With two more skilled fighters, the team could tackle the types of threats we’d avoided thus far. Three people running interference against any physical threat would also mean that each of us non-fighters could enjoy the benefits of having a protector each. Of course, that might occasionally require that the Twins split up, but it was still something to think about.

I opened my mouth and turned to Mila, to say…something. The thought never had a chance to crystallize into a sentence. As I swiveled to face her, I happened to look over her shoulder. Past the groups of line-dancing Texans, past the tables filled with rowdy drinkers and quiet conversations in equal measure, I saw the black-haired waitress in a far corner of the room. She was standing in a shadowy corner, concealed from most of the people in the bar, except for someone seated in my exact position and looking at that exact moment.

She wasn’t alone. The waitress seemed to be speaking in an intense whisper to someone I couldn’t quite make out from so far away. As I watched, she gestured in the general direction of our table. She fell silent, waited as someone else spoke to her, and then continued. The gestures in our direction grew more animated.

I would have simply watched the exchange with mounting curiosity, if the waitress’ partner hadn’t chosen that moment to step out of the shadows. Instantly, I recognized the string tie and the wide-brimmed cowboy hat. The waitress’ partner didn’t walk, so much as he loped, in wide steps.

The Texan dug something out of his pocket and held it out to the waitress. She accepted the gift, then stepped on her tip toes to kiss him on the cheek. He returned the favor.

Mila,” I said, trying to inject as much warning into my voice as possible. It must have worked, because she narrowed her eyes and tensed noticeably.

Yes?”

I think we’ve got a problem,” I said.

The Texan continued his conversation with the black-haired waitress while I watched, desperately wishing I’d remembered to keep up with my lip reading. As it was, I didn’t need the skill to pick out several key words.

Yakuza was one. Fugitives was another. Magi was the third.

The Texan looked up from the conversation, vision piercing straight through the crowd, and made eye contact with me.

Scratch that,” I said. “We definitely have a problem.”

Chapter 69

Moral support,” I repeated. I swept my vision across the nearest groups of people and, spotting nothing immediately out of the ordinary, tried to shrink slightly into my chair and out of sight. “You told the Twins where you were going to be? Where we were going to be?

They called me and needed to know where I was going to be for the next couple of days. I figured they just wanted to use their marker to get me to help them on a job.”

But?”

But then they asked about China and the Triad’s money. Kira almost seemed willing to let it go, when I tried to duck out of answering, but Akumi…she must have realized I was keeping something to myself. She’s the one who called for a meeting.”

I tried, with only a moderate amount of success, to quell the anxiety building inside my head. The Twins – Akumi and Kira, apparently – had attended the Green Light gala, presumably in their professional capacity. I hadn’t physically been inside the bar when Mila had pulled them aside and we hadn’t crossed paths with them during the remainder of our time in London. There was every possibility that they’d never gotten close enough or interested enough to identify me; at the same time, there was also a fair chance that they’d noticed me in their peripheral vision and were on the verge of connecting the dots.

I’ve got to get out of here,” I said, pushing away from the table and pointing myself in the direction of the door. I made it two steps before I collided with the black-haired server from earlier. I went down in a tangle of my own body parts, while she managed to regain her balance at the last instant. She put the tray of food down on a nearby table before reaching down to help me back to my feet.

Sorry about that,” she said. There was only the lightest touch of a Texas drawl to her words. She sounded like someone who’d learned to speak like that, instead of picking it up naturally. Her hair, jet-black and voluminous, spilled out of her makeshift head covering as she hauled me back into a standing position. “Should’ve watched where I was going.”

No, it’s fine. I’m the one who stood up, I’m the one who should be making sure someone isn’t standing right behind me when I do it.”

I can get you a drink,” the server said, “on the house. We pride ourselves on hospitality here. And making sure that the guests are treated right, of course.”

I started to object, but Mila spoke over me too quickly. “We’ll have two,” she said.

My eyebrow climbed and Mila pinched the loose skin around my elbow with far more strength than any one person should have in only two fingers. Wisely, I amended my decision and returned to my seat; only then did Mila release me.

I reminded myself that, while Mila technically worked according to the terms laid out in her contract with the Lady, she was free to interpret those rules in whatever way she saw fit. Or, depending on how things had changed after her decision to fully join us in our crusade, she could simply ignore the contract entirely and do whatever she wanted. I certainly wouldn’t be able to stop her.

I rubbed at the painful spot of her Vulcan Death Grip and shot her a venomous glare. Mila met the glare with an expression of calm, placid neutrality.

The waitress tried to look like she wasn’t watching the strange dynamic play out. “Uh…” The waitress cleared her throat quite deliberately. “You wanted two drinks? What of?”

Well, Mila,” I said, “you’re the one who’s got a better idea of what we’re going to do. What drinks do you think we should get?”

While my glare hadn’t done anything to ruffle her feathers, something about my tone or word choice struck home. Mila winced, almost imperceptibly, before she turned her attention to the waitress. “Bourbon,” she said, “sake, and four sake cups. Leave the bottles, too.” She did a strange thing with her fingers while she spoke.

Again, the waitress didn’t write down any of our order. She lingered at the table for a few more seconds, though, and only moved to retrieve the drinks when I gave her a pointed look. It worked better on her than on Mila, so at least I could take comfort in the knowledge that my glares weren’t losing potency.

What was that about?” I asked, when the server was finally out of earshot.

I asked for privacy,” Mila said. “Some people here might recognize me, so I told the server to make sure that no one comes over. Except for Akumi and Sato, obviously.”

That explained the strange finger movements, but I hadn’t actually been asking about that. “I mean, why did you pinch me in the first place? If you need to talk to them, then fine; but that doesn’t mean I need to be here. Remember how I’m trying really hard to make sure that no one can figure out that Sarah Ford has anything to do with the underworld?”

They never saw you, Sarah,” Mila said. “Even if they did, they pay absolutely no attention to American socialites or politics, so they wouldn’t recognize you. And even if they did recognize you, we’re meeting to discuss terms in an honorable fashion.”

Meaning?”

Meaning that neither of the Twins would ever do anything that might dishonor me, themselves, or their boss. Nothing. If they make their organization look bad by breaching that code, it’d be a black mark on the organization itself, not just on the Twins.”

But nothing’s stopping them from selling my name to the next person who asks, as long as they do it after you’ve agreed to…whatever these terms are?”

Mila hesitated for an instant before answering. “If you don’t give them any reason to think of you as anything other than a repeat client, they won’t have any reason to do that. I’m the one they’re here for.”

And you just brought me for ‘moral support.’ Right.” If Mila had needed a companion for this meeting, she could’ve waited until Devlin or Michel sobered up. We had a full three days in town before we could try to cut a deal with the Texan; surely, she could have met the Twins another night and still maintained the value of her word with the Twins.

I need to be able to show that I am actually working a job,” Mila said. “When I got my information from them in London, I specifically outlined that I wouldn’t break a contract to fulfill my obligation, and they agreed. As soon as they see you here, they’ll have to accept that I’m too busy at the moment to help them with their search until I complete my current contract.”

And then what?”

And then we find a way to pay their boss back?” Mila suggested. “Or we make some sort of alternate arrangement? They’re business people, doing business things. If we can make amends for stealing from them – especially because we didn’t actually mean to – they’ll probably be willing to let things slide.”

Even though I was still beginning to wrap my head around the byzantine rules and restrictions of the underworld, such as they existed in person instead of the digital space, I’d been around business people enough to understand their mindsets. If the Twins’ boss in the Yakuza had lost money due to our actions, and if it were ever revealed that we’d been the ones responsible for said loss, it would take more than an equivalent repayment to settle the debt. Other organizations would be circling in the water, eager to pounce at any supposed sign of weakness. In order to keep those predators at bay, an example would need to be made.

I had no desire to become that example.

Mila must have read the increasing tension in the way my muscles shifted or a slight shift in my body weight or some other arcane method of divination, because she lowered her voice and spoke to me in a soft whisper. “Either they don’t know anything or they’ve only got guesses. If they were here to actually do something, they wouldn’t have agreed to talk. Any trouble they send our way, they’ll be sending at me, and me alone. You’ll be fine.”

I rolled my eyes. “Not this again.”

Not what again?”

Devlin would have said something clever, but gentle, in rebuke to that sentiment. My settings only went to ‘rebuke,’ though. “You’re not doing this again. You aren’t just our bodyguard, Mila; you’re a part of the team, too. Your problems are our problems. Isn’t that what you told me after the Sovereign?”

Mila was quiet for a moment or two before answering. “This isn’t the same thing.”

Isn’t it? We already agreed to help you deal with the Twins, whenever they came calling. This is a known factor. You’re not going to throw yourself on that grenade.”

I am your bodyguard,” Mila said, “even if I’m part of the team, too. If someone’s got to take the hit, that’s my job.”

It’s not your job to sacrifice yourself for no reason,” I countered. “You said it earlier: maybe there’s some other way we can get the Twins and their boss to leave us alone. But if there isn’t, then we’ll find a way to deal with that together.”

This was a long-running argument, though Devlin was normally the one speaking against Mila’s suicidal tendencies. Apparently, they needed to talk at greater length again. I probably wasn’t saying the right things.

All I know,” I continued, “is that you only made a deal with the Twins in the first place was to get information we all needed,” I said. “Even if we didn’t necessarily know we needed it at that point. If you’re staying, then I’m staying. I’m not going to leave you to deal with this on your own.”

It occurred to me, in a rare flash of interpersonal insight, that Mila had claimed to need moral support. Perhaps she’d actually wanted me to talk her out of something rash? But, if that was the case, Devlin or Michel would have been far better choices.

But, before I could even begin to chase down that errant thought, it was too late. The crowds parted like a wave and, in the ensuing space, I saw the Twins.

They’d worn matching black suits at the Green Light gala, imposing and impressive in their mute solidarity. At the bar after we’d managed to kidnap Avis, but before we’d taken Devlin out of Interpol’s crosshairs, I seemed to remember that they’d changed into more casual, though still professional, attire. Now, at the heart of the Dallas underground, they’d abandoned the matching attire and chosen clothing that helped to separate the two of them in my mind.

The taller of the twins was a woman, around my height, with a lithe grace to her movements. She seemed…familiar, in a way I couldn’t quite put my finger on. She wore a neatly tailored dark blue suit, cut to perfection. As she moved, I caught a glimpse of a shoulder holster beneath her jacket and what appeared, at first glance, to be a hilt of some sort protruding out from a sheath at the small of her back. Her hair fell straight down, past her shoulder blades, like a waterfall of darkness. She paused momentarily as she emerged from the crowd, scanned the area until she spotted Mila, and then pointed for the benefit of her companion.

He had thrown away any pretense of professionalism. Where the female of the pair had adhered, more or less, to the sort of wardrobe I’d expect from any office executive or wall street financier, the male must have gone out of his way to spit in that ideal’s face. A leather jacket, festooned with studs and zippers in odd places, caught my attention first. There was a fringe of faux – I hoped it was faux – fur blossoming from the collar of the leather jacket, concealing the man’s expression from a distance. His own hair was shorter than his sister’s, but more distinctive. He’d deliberately styled it so that various spikes poked out at strange angles, then swept the whole pincushion back slightly so that he could see clearly.

As the Twins drew closer to our table, I was able to take in more details about their appearances. They were dressed at the complete opposite end of the spectrum, in terms of presentation, but they somehow made it work for them. The woman took the lead, striding easily towards us without an apparent care in the world, while her brother sauntered along in her wake. She checked the time on a wristwatch and fiddled with her phone before she took one of the two remaining seats at the table, closer to Mila than to me. Her brother adjusted one of the half-dozen rings he wore and dropped unceremoniously into the chair nearer to my side of the table.

Akumi,” Mila said, bowing her head respectfully to the woman. “Kira. How’s work?”

Akumi, the woman, slowly lifted and dropped one of her shoulders in response. “Busy,” she said. “Very busy.”

Shame to hear that,” Mila said.

I prefer to be busy instead of…tired? Dull?”

Bored?” I offered. The Twins turned their eyes to me and I immediately regretted speaking up to begin with.

Who is this?” Kira asked, in a voice that rose and fell with a strange cadence. He tilted his head to what had to be a painful angle and peered at me. A necklace of some sort with a circular charm spilled out of concealment at his throat.

I have a ward right now,” Mila said. “This is her.”

I waved awkwardly. “Uh…hello. It’s, uh…good to meet you?”

In a less dangerous situation, I probably would’ve melted into a puddle of embarrassed goo right there and saved everyone the trouble of hunting me down in order to hurt me.

Kira didn’t stop looking at me. He leaned even closer, lifting himself off of his chair in the process. “You brought her here? Does she know who we are?”

Akumi expertly flicked open a silvery case and removed a single cigarette. She produced a lighter from thin air, lit her cigarette, and took a long pull before picking up the thread of her brother’s thoughts. “Does she know what we do?”

There’d been something familiar about Akumi and I hadn’t put my finger on it until that exact sentence. She gave off the same aura as Mila, on one of her bad days. My skin crawled as the intensity of Akumi’s practiced, disinterested appraisal fell on me. I could feel her eyes cataloging me, analyzing a dozen different attack patterns for maximum efficiency, deciding whether or not it would be more expedient to cripple or kill me. She weighed me in her mind, running every visible detail through some matrix native to mercenaries, hitmen, and other toughs in Mila’s line of work. I shivered involuntarily and felt absolutely certain that Akumi added that to her mental evaluation.

Oh stop that,” Mila said irritably.

The pressure of Akumi’s attention lessened slightly. “Stop what?”

You know what you’re doing. The whole creepy, unsettling vibe that the two of you work so hard at.” Mila sighed. “I came here to talk, but I don’t want to talk with the characters you play when you’re on the job.”

But we are on the job,” Kira said. He still hadn’t returned to his chair, but at least he hadn’t contorted himself anymore.

Are you?” Mila asked. “Akumi, you turned your phone off before you sat down. And Kira, those look like new shoes to me. Are you saying you’d risk a pair of Bathing Apes, if you thought there was any possibility at all that you’d be in a fight?”

That was a whole hell of a lot of insight for someone who claimed an inability to understand people. For Mila to so accurately read the Twins and so quickly, she must have been hiding depths of interpersonal knowledge that would boggle the mind. That, or she’d worked with them in the past long enough to know their quirks and tells. Either way, I was immensely glad for her presence.

The three hitters stared at each other over the table in a silent, intense struggle of wills. Mila endured longer than Kira and, when Kira sighed and returned to a seated position, Akumi relented as well.

You are right,” Akumi said, “and you are also wrong.”

Goto-san does not know we are here,” Kira said. “Not exactly.”

That is why I turned off my phone,” Akumi said. “But also for other reasons.”

And those ‘other reasons’ have something to do with the thieves that hit the Triads a few months back? That’s why you’re asking about that, all of a sudden?”

The Twins exchanged a look and then began conversing in Japanese. I raised a curious eyebrow in Mila’s direction – Japanese wasn’t one of the languages I spoke – and she shook her head in the negative.

While the Twins conversed, the server I’d almost knocked over returned with a bottle of Bourbon, two glasses, a carafe of sake, and a cluster of tiny cups balanced on a tray. She took care to give me a wide berth as she set down the contents of her tray, next to the as-yet untouched food. For a moment, it seemed like she was going to say something to the Twins but she thought better of it and made her exit as quickly as she could instead.

The fevered conversation between the Twins reached some sort of consensus. When Kira spoke again, most of his accent was gone and all of the strange lilting musicality of his voice was replaced by stark seriousness. “Do you trust this…ward of yours?”

With my life,” Mila answered immediately. I barely kept myself from staring at her in shock.

We have known each other a long time,” Akumi said. “And we know that you are both honorable and skilled. If anyone can be trusted…but no. It is not a matter of trust. You owe us a favor.”

I do,” Mila said. “And if you’d get around to asking for it, I could tell you whether or not it’s possible right now.”

Information for information,” Kira said. “You asked us a question once; now, we will ask you one.”

Akumi lowered her voice until it was barely audible. “The people who robbed the Triad? Who are they?”

Mila narrowed her eyes. “Why?”

Kira swallowed nervously, but it was his sister that answered. “Because…” She stopped, collected herself, and started over again. “Because we need their help.”

Chapter 68

I’d only ever seen the underworld once, while in the preliminary stages of a complicated counterfeiting job in Marseilles a few years back. At the time, Devlin had been engaged in infiltrating the high society functions where our target would be displayed and our client – an older woman who seemed to smoke at least two packs of Gauloises every hour, on the hour – had needed an update on our progress. So, I’d met her in a smoky bar on the coast, sipped chardonnay, and talked about the job in low voices to her satisfaction.

Foolishly, I’d allowed myself to believe that every underworld location would be more or less the same: criminals conducting business in hushed voices, furtively glancing over their shoulders and anticipating an arrival from local law enforcement every moment. It wasn’t a reasonable thing to think, of course; I’d personally attended the Green Light Gala in London and rubbed shoulders with the most elite, most mysterious criminals that no one had ever heard of. But it had still been an idea that I’d allowed to take root in my mind.

The Texas underworld uprooted that concept and tossed the branches into the nearest figurative wood chipper.

If Mila’s information was correct – and I had no reason to think otherwise, considering the roundabout way in which we’d been granted access to this speakeasy – then the Dallas underworld wasn’t a place of secret conversations and hastily arranged meetings. This was a place of revelry. As I watched the crowd shifting and surging, I caught the strains of an amplified banjo kicking into an uptempo song. I almost wasn’t surprised to see that an actual band had set up on a raised platform in one corner of the room.

As the song picked up speed and volume, no fewer than a dozen patrons cleared out a little space for themselves among the people and began a complicated line dance that involved as many quicksteps as spins, dips, and twirls. I tried to follow the movements for a few seconds, mesmerized by their agility, before I realized where I was standing and crashed back down into the moment.

“They just…but we’re underneath…how?” I managed to ask.

“Way I understand it,” Mila said, “someone with some pull managed to get the contract for the renovations to Mockingbird Station. When they were fixing up the place, they happened to stumble upon this place and figured that it might be a useful spot to keep to themselves.”

“So they – whoever they are -built this? In six months?”

Mila shrugged. “Looks like it. But you’d have to talk to someone who was actually here during the move to get the whole story, if you’re really interested.”

I spent a good twenty seconds wondering if the unanswered origins of the Dallas underworld’s hideout would bother me, before deciding that I could live without that knowledge. Primarily, there were a great many aspects of the international community that I didn’t understand and I didn’t believe one more question would be too onerous of a burden. In addition to that main reason, however, I didn’t want to bring attention to myself.

Or, more accurately, I didn’t want to bring any more attention to myself than I was already drawing by virtue of my position right at the top of the entry staircase.

“Let’s get somewhere else,” I said. “Anywhere other than in plain view of everyone down there.”

Mila started down the stairs and I stayed one step behind her. She spoke as she descended into the bedlam. “These aren’t the kind of people who’d notice or recognize you, so you don’t have much to worry about there.”

“They wouldn’t notice me?” As soon as the sentence passed my lips, I cringed at the way it had sounded.

“They’d notice,” Mila said, either not noticing or not caring about the arrogance I’d inadvertently displayed, “but they wouldn’t care. You wouldn’t be the first socialite who managed to find their way into an underworld party. Even if someone was in a position to name you, all they’d really be able to say is that you came to a private bar.”

“And that…that works?”

Mila shrugged again. “I ran into two mayors, a senator’s daughter, and a city councilman the last time I went to the old place. People like to drink, they like to dance, and they really like to mind their own business.”

“But if you can’t tell who’s actually a part of the underworld versus the…visitors, I guess, for lack of a better term…how does any actual business get done?”

“Signals, mostly,” Mila said. “Gestures, specific drink orders, that kind of thing. Depends on what you’re after, but you can pretty much get a coded message across to the right people with a little bit of work.”

We reached the bottom of the stairs and entered the bustling floor space. Mila took on a more aggressive posture as she pushed, bumped, and elbowed her way into the throng of people. As she moved them aside, I slipped into her wake, careful not to touch the patrons when they inevitably drifted back into position behind me. While we made our way forward, I allowed myself to consider the merits of the Dallas underworld’s operating procedures.

It did have its merits, I had to admit. There was a lot of lighter business – nonviolent break-ins, pickpocketing, eavesdropping, and the like – that passed through the underworld shops, bars, and hiding spots. The sort of people who would choose to frequent an establishment like this speakeasy probably wouldn’t be too conflicted by the knowledge that such crimes took place, even if they were given solid proof that such crimes were actually taking place.

By hiding in the nearest equivalent to plain sight, the Dallas underworld might have come up with a sustainable business model. Hell, if the activity at the bar was any implication, the unnamed proprietor might very well be making a profit.

The band switched to a slower song, which prompted the occupants of a nearby table to make their way to the cleared area of the floor. Mila swooped in and claimed the table before any of the other patrons could make a move in that direction. I took the chair opposite her, painfully aware of how many people were behind me and therefore out of my line of sight.

“Why are we here?” I asked. “You said we were coming out so that you could show me how to protect myself better, but I don’t see how a speakeasy is going to help with that.”

“It isn’t. I mean, it isn’t directly going to help. You could probably stand to learn a thing or two about relaxation, though.”

“How is relaxing going to help me?”

“If you’re tense, like you are right now, you’re more likely to freeze up at a critical moment,” Mila answered immediately. “Even if it’s only a second or a split second, that could be all it takes for someone to get the upper hand. What happened at the Mason, when those thugs came in to kidnap you?”

I didn’t answer her question out loud, but I couldn’t stop my mind from traveling back and reliving the incident. Just after I’d realized that the Mouse was actually Caelum and just before he’d triggered some sort of wide spectrum jamming device, I’d allowed myself to think through all of the implications of his real identity. While I’d been working my way through the trail of clues, however, I hadn’t actually been doing anything.

By the time I’d decided to act, the two hired goons had already been too close for me to make an escape. Even then, I’d waited until almost the last possible moment before fear and adrenaline galvanized me into attacking the closest man in a desperate bid for freedom.

“There were two men there, both of whom were heavier and presumably more accustomed to violence than me,” I said, raising my voice to be heard over the music and cheering. “I was waiting for an opening.”

A female server, complete with signature bandanna tied into a head covering that didn’t quite conceal a considerable amount of flowing black hair, materialized from the crowd of people and approached the table. There was no menu on the table or anywhere that I could see and the server made no effort to produce one.

Mila drummed her fingernails on the tabletop for a few moments. “Are you hungry?” She asked me.

I blinked, momentarily taken aback by the abrupt change in conversation. I actually hadn’t eaten much since a few snacks on the flight and, now that Mila had mentioned it, my stomach began to voice its displeasure.

I nodded to her and she turned to speak to the waiter at a volume that I couldn’t catch. The waitress listened patiently, taking no notes at all, and disappeared back into the wall of people as soon as Mila finished with her order.

“It’s all specials,” Mila said, in answer to my questioning look. “Chef Sergeant is a fixture in this community. He does great work, but he’s, uh…not classically trained. Got most of his experience working short order jobs until he found his way into the underworld, so he’s more comfortable doing orders on the fly.”

“He just makes whatever you ask for?”

“If he can,” Mila said. “If he can’t, he’ll whip up the next best thing. Easier to deal with if you’ve got favorites, but it’s a bitch if you don’t have any idea what you want when you walk in the door. Or down the stairs, whatever.”

Mila’s familiarity with the rules of the Dallas underworld struck me again. She never seemed precisely uncomfortable in her day-to-day life, but she also didn’t ever really seem to fit in t her surroundings. She’d established a relationship with Devlin that consisted of meaningful silences as much as in-depth conversations; her relationship with Michel was a complete mystery to all of us, Michel included. But here, in the underworld she apparently knew from her rookie years, she seemed…at ease? At peace? The proper words kept slipping through my mental fingers.

“Anyway,” Mila said, drawing my attention back to her, “the Mason. There’s a difference between waiting for your moment and freezing up. If you find yourself in a situation like that again, here’s rule number one for survival: it’s better to make the wrong choice than not to make a choice at all. Start running, even if you don’t know where you’re headed. If it comes down to it, attack, even if you know you’ll lose. Maybe some other opportunity will open up, because anything’s better than giving up.”

“If I’d done that, they just would’ve clubbed me over the head and shined that camera right into my -”

Anything,” Mila repeated, with enough force that I shut up, mid-sentence. She closed her eyes briefly, appeared to center herself, and finished her thought. “I’m not saying you should be reckless and I’m not saying you shouldn’t be afraid. But I am saying that you shouldn’t act like a deer in the headlights. Fight or flee, but never freeze.”

I nodded, more to move past this portion of the conversation than out of any real agreement. As I thought more about this first rule, however, I felt like I could just barely glimpse the tenet’s merits. If I hadn’t done anything at all, the goons would have revealed me to the Mouse. If I’d attempted to get away sooner, what could really have happened? Either I got away from them and from the Mouse’s jammer, free to call for help…or I got caught before making it out of the museum.

If the former, so much the better. If the latter, it wasn’t any worse than what awaited me for inaction. And, if I’d been able to muster the will to attack a little sooner, maybe I would’ve caught the men completely flat-footed.

Mila’s first rule bore closer consideration. I resolved to give it that time when I wasn’t several dozen feet underground, listening to a rousing dance tune that sounded suspiciously like the theme from Deliverance.

“That’s not why we’re here, though,” I said finally.

“No,” Mila said. “It’s not.”

Then, she hesitated. It wasn’t a long silence, as silences went. Mila had, on more than one occasion, lapsed into silence in the middle of a conversation for no discernible reason. I almost didn’t give the momentary pause a second thought, but then I noticed that Mila was avoiding eye contact.

That was abnormal. Mila was disconcertingly capable of maintaining eye contact, no matter what the topic of conversation and regardless of how personal that conversation might be. If she was looking away from me now, it meant that she was feeling deeply embarrassed about her real reason for bringing me to underworld with her. And if she was feeling embarrassed, the real reason for our little trip would probably have crippled any lesser mortal with shame and indecision.

“You’re trying to keep your name secret,” Mila said. “I get that. It’s your own thing, like Devlin’s got his issues with bullies. I’m not trying to get in the way of that.”

“Okay…”

“But I’ve got my own things to deal with,” she said.

“I know that. We know that. We knew we’d have to deal with your past at some point when we asked you to join up with us, long-term. What’re you trying to say?”

Mila shook her head. “It’s not about Aiden. Not directly, at least.”

“Then what?”

“When we were in London, trying to stop Hill from getting his hands on the kid, I went rogue for a bit while we were on the job. Do you remember?”

I did. Our efforts to rescue the child Avis had, inadvertently, led to the police taking a direct interest in Devlin. In a single night, we’d gone from a crowded bar into the shadowy recesses of a legitimate Black Market buried in the seedy underbelly of the city; from that Market into a fiery showdown at a repurposed manufacturing plant; and from that plant into the heart of police power in the greater London metropolitan area.

Mila had attempted to go rogue during the first stage of that endeavor, when we’d still had a several day long plan in the works. While she’d been tasked to protect Michel, she had instead switched off her camera and entered into a conversation with a pair of associates she knew from previous jobs.

“I remember,” I said. “The Twins, right?”

“Right. Akumi and Kira are old…I don’t know if I’d call them friends, but we’ve worked together in the past. We’ve also worked against each other, but it wasn’t ever anything personal.”

Having seen Mila in her element, and with my knowledge of the people she’d consorted with before joining our team, I couldn’t begin to understand how a conflict wouldn’t be personal, by default, but I was willing to accept that it was possible. Devlin stole items from people he’d previously worked with. I’d been forced to hack my way past defenses set up by other members of the Community. Of course, where it concerned Devlin and myself, people generally didn’t end up with broken bones, but Mila seemed to consider those as mere details.

“So,” Mila said. “I made a deal. The twins gave me information on Aiden and I promised to help them in the future. One request, no matter what, and I had to do my best to help them out.”

I caught a glimpse of where this conversation was headed. The twins were either Japanese or they’d chosen to speak in Japanese. Either way, I knew of at least one Japanese organization that might have some serious issues to discuss with me and the rest of the team.

“You didn’t tell them anything about we’re doing. You didn’t.”

“I didn’t,” Mila confirmed. “As far as anyone’s concerned, I’ve just been taking contracts for the last couple of months. No one’s going to hold that kind of work against me. I’m too valuable for that.”

I noted how Mila could say something like that without a trace of arrogance, while I couldn’t seem to mention my own upbringing without sounding impossibly pompous. Then, I added another entry to the list of ‘things Mila can get away with ‘and refocused on the conversation.

“But I can’t break my word,” Mila continued. “When they asked if I knew what had happened to that money we stole in China, I couldn’t lie to them. Not without triggering a much larger shit storm than was already brewing. I tried to distract them, but it didn’t work.”

A creeping sense of horror, mingled with understanding, was slowly dawning on me. “They had financial interests in that area?”

Mila nodded. “Seems like it. The people Akumi and Sato work for don’t normally invest in international schemes, but we have been changing the landscape pretty drastically.”

That was an understatement of the highest order. Yakuza organizations, like the one the Twins probably worked for, were incredibly insular. Some factions branched out to local countries without strong underworld communities, but that was generally it. If they were pooling resources with members of the Chinese Triad, there was no telling what other new and dangerous relationships could be forming in the shadows.

“So what did you tell them?”

“I told them that I knew someone involved. That’s technically true. I didn’t give any names, but still. They wanted more information and they wanted to meet, ASAP.”

“Mila. Why did you bring me here?”

She gave me the most helpless shrug I’d ever seen any human being produce, let alone one whose entire demeanor seemed custom-designed to avoid helplessness. “Moral support?”

 

Chapter 67

I was almost dressed and ready to go by the time Mila returned to my room.  The wardrobe selection had taken more time than I wanted her to know about.  At first, I’d toyed with the idea of throwing on one of my newer blouses and a pair of nice slacks, but I wasn’t sure if that was the sort of attire one wore when frequenting the darker corners of the underworld.  Then, I spent almost a half hour considering what clothing people in that world would wear.  Devlin was an atypical example, surely.  I’d rarely met anyone – male, female, law abiding citizen, or international thief – who paid more attention to his clothing.  Surely, safe crackers and whatnot wouldn’t all share his particular predilections.

Ultimately, I went with comfort and familiarity: a pair of jeans that I didn’t often find an opportunity to wear, running shoes that I absolutely never ran in, a t-shirt with a picture of Steve McQueen, and a light jacket.  The outfit would probably fit in anywhere, to a reasonable degree.  If I needed to spend more time slumming around in Dallas, a rushed shopping trip wouldn’t be too much trouble.

“You ready?” Mila asked, without preamble.  I saw that she’d decided on a similar outfit, except that the jeans were a little tighter around her hips and the jacket was a little looser.  I could see the telltale outline of a shoulder holster if I looked at her from the right angle which, I imagined, was the point.

I slipped my recharged stun gun into one jacket pocket and a new burner phone into the other.  Burners were always a pain to keep up with – they needed to be constantly changed, for one thing, and one new phone ultimately necessitated an entire set of phones – but there weren’t any better options for the moment.  There was no way to know if the Mouse had gained access to the encryption key for the phones and it was just safer to operate under the assumption that he could listen in on our phone calls.

“I guess,” I said.  “Wouldn’t really know if there’s anything I’m forgetting, though.  This isn’t really my thing.”

“You said that already.  But we’re all about learning new skills these days, aren’t we?”

I made a noncommittal noise in response to that.  She wasn’t wrong.  Dealing with international conspiracies and hunting down the businesses of an organization more than willing to just kill me hadn’t really been my thing either, until fairly recently.

“Here,” Mila said.  “I got you something.”

I raised an eyebrow as Mila dug around in her jacket pocket for a few moments, then withdrew the odd, pen-shaped item I’d seen her playing with on the plane.  She passed it over to me and, without thinking, I took it from her.  The “pen” was heavier than I would have expected, but the weight was evenly proportioned throughout its length.

“I’ve got pens,” I said.  “What’s this?”

“If I had a year,” Mila said, “without any interruptions, I could probably teach you enough to take care of yourself in a hand-to-hand fight.  But I don’t have a year.  I probably don’t even have a month before you’ll need to handle someone without me nearby to save you.”

My pride flared up in outrage at the matter-of-fact tone in Mila’s voice until my memory of her rescue at the Mason quelled any desire to defend myself.

She kept going.  “You were handy with that stun gun in Tangier, though.  And you used something to take out one of those guys at the Mason, too.  What was that, mace?”

“Pepper spray.”

Mila nodded.  “That’s what I thought.  I figured you might not always be able to get to a bag – especially not if someone’s watching for it – so I did some searching before we left Atlanta.”

I gave the “pen” a closer look.  Except for its unusual heft, I didn’t see anything particularly special about it.  When I looked closer, though, I felt a slightly raised bump near the pen’s click top.

“This is pepper spray?”  I asked.

“Not exactly,” Mila replied with a shadow of a smirk.  “It’s in the same family, though.  Like nuclear bombs are technically in the same family as dynamite.”

I took my finger away from the raised bump very carefully.  I’d never been pepper sprayed or maced and I had no desire to accidentally put myself on the receiving end of that flavor of pain.

“Thanks,” I said.

Mila coughed and shrugged at the same time.  “Just trying to make my job easier.  Anyway.  If you get in trouble, you can spray someone in the face with it or just use to hit them over the head.  Do it the right way and you can probably break someone’s rib…or at least some fingers.”

I knew that Mila favored a telescoping baton for close quarters combat these days, ever since Devlin and I had strenuously argued in favor of non-lethal means whenever possible.  On the rare occasions when I’d actually seen her use the weapon, the length of black metal had seemed like an extension of her own limbs.  I could almost see the “pen” as a miniature version of Mila’s own preferred weapon.  I’d be capable of defending myself in the most dire of circumstances, except that it wouldn’t require anywhere near as much skill to utilize effectively.

It was almost heartwarming…in a very mercenary sort of way.

“Thanks,” I said again.

Mila paid no attention at all to my appreciation.  She turned on her heel and strode out of the room.  I carefully placed the pen into my jacket’s inside pocket before I followed after her.

There was a cab waiting for us when we reached the street.  I was somewhat surprised to realize that I didn’t recognize the driver.

“Where’s Michel?” I asked.

“He’s been working with Devlin to reduce the alcohol supply of this hotel,” Mila said, “and the locals seem delighted to cheer them both on.  Even if I hadn’t told him to stay behind, he couldn’t have driven us anywhere.  Besides, he doesn’t know the city.”

She’d told him to stay behind?  Did that mean she’d also forbidden Devlin from joining us on our jaunt into the underworld?  Devlin could hold his liquor better than almost anyone I knew and, even when he couldn’t keep it together, he still instinctively operated at an impressive level of skill.  And no amount of booze – or, at least, no amount of booze that wouldn’t already have embalmed him –  would have been sufficient to keep him from forcing his way into the taxi with us.

Mila must not have told them, then.  Or maybe she’d told Michel, in private, and he’d made the decision not to tell Devlin.   I couldn’t imagine a reason why Mila or Michel would have done that, but I also couldn’t think of any other plausible series of events.

“Where are we going exactly?” I asked.

Mila gestured for me to step into the cab and, after a moment of thought, I did so.  She took her place next to me, fished around in her jacket, and then passed the driver a hundred dollar bill.  “Mockingbird Station,” she said.

The driver recoiled momentarily from the money, but he recovered quickly.  “You going to want me to stick around while you’re shopping?”

Mila shook her head.  “The opposite, actually.  As in, you might want to forget about this fare entirely.”

The driver shrugged.  “Fine by me.  I’ll even get you there fast, no extra charge.”

He’d pulled out into traffic before Mila flashed me a grin.  “I haven’t had anything to eat today,” she said.  “Want to grab some food?”

I knew for a fact that Mila never really stopped eating.  There was a mischievous look on her face that I’d never seen there before, however, and I couldn’t resist the urge to see where things were headed.  Even the anxiety and apprehension I felt about venturing into the underworld withered a little bit.

“I could eat,” I said, smiling back.

Thirty minutes later, give or take, we stepped out of the cab in front of Mockingbird Station.  From where we stood, I could see the actual Mockingbird station, with its above ground trains running back and forth, but my real focus was on the expansive building complex in front of me.  Like a mall, but significantly larger, Mockingbird Station had expanded out from its meager beginnings until becoming the behemoth before us.

“I thought you’d only worked in this town a little bit,” I said.

Mila shook her head.  “At this level, sure. But I spent a lot of time in Dallas and the surrounding areas when I was…starting out.”

“Is this where you’re from?”

She shook her head again and said nothing.  I thought she wasn’t going to say anything else but, after an uncomfortably long silence, she started walked into the Station and started speaking at the same time.  “Every major city like Dallas or Atlanta has its own underground,” she said.

So, she obviously wasn’t going to elaborate on her ties to Dallas.  Fair enough.  I wasn’t about to pry into her personal life unless it became absolutely necessary.

“I know that,” I said, falling in step behind her.  “Just because I stay away from them doesn’t mean I’m completely ignorant to how these things work.  Every city’s got its own underground and they’ve all got…similarities, I guess.  Everyone knows that much.”

“But, like you said, you don’t really go to these places,” Mila said.  “So you only know about it theoretically.  Devlin normally handles the face-to-face stuff, right?”

“What’s your point?”

“So you went to the Green Light thing in London,” Mila said,  “but it’s not normally like that.  I’ve been to a lot of different underworlds for business and each one is always a little different.  Sometimes, it’s a lot different.  I’ll have to tell you about the kind of shit they get up to in the Triad bars at some point.”

I’d never done business with the Triads. I was, however, fully aware that we’d stolen a great deal of money from them in the recent past.  If my research shared even the vaguest relation to reality, I had no desire whatsoever to encounter any of those people.

Mila paused at a free standing map kiosk, examined it, and then headed east.  “Anyway.  When I reached out to some of my local contacts, they told me that everyone had been forced to move away from the old hiding places.  Police crackdowns, new people who couldn’t help but to attract attention…that sort of thing.”

“How long ago did all this happen?”

She paused.  “I didn’t have time to get all of the details, but it started before we got into our little mission.  What we’re doing probably accelerated the matter, though.”

We walked farther into the Station without talking for a bit.  It wasn’t exactly late, but my sense of time had been badly jarred by the frequent time zone changes.  While there were people in the Station, most of them were either in restaurants or headed towards the exits.  Mila and I had a reasonable amount of privacy, considering that we were out in public.

“You’re telling me all this,” I said, “and I admit, there’s some of it I didn’t know.  But why?  You still haven’t told me where we’re going.”

“There,” Mila said, answering the second question and ignoring the implied first one.  She pointed up at a sign declaring that we’d reached the Blind Alley Pizza Shop, family owned since 1925.

That couldn’t be right.  Nothing about the Station appeared anywhere near that old.  Although, I supposed it was possible that a family owned business could have simply migrated into the Station when space became available.

“You’re actually hungry?” I asked.

Mila shrugged.  “I mean, sure.  Who jokes about being hungry?”

I opened my mouth to say something, thought better of it, and pressed my lips together into a tight line.  There was just something distinctly unfair about Mila’s dietary habits, when one considered how athletic she was.  It was just wrong.

A hostess greeted us at the door and showed us to an empty booth near the kitchen.  She gave the two of us a sideways glance before departing and I realized that she thought the two of us were on a date.  She stepped away before I could correct that assumption, though.

Before long, a waiter made his way to our table.  “Welcome to Blind Alley,” he said.  “Can I get you two ladies started on something to drink?”

“Two juices,” Mila said, before I could speak.

I tilted my head at the strange order and fell silent.

The waiter blinked slowly.  “That was two juices, ma’am?”

Mila nodded.  “We’re thirsty people,” she said.  “Oh, and could you tell Chef Sergeant that two old friends would like to try the special?”

The waiter scribbled down something on his pad that I couldn’t see, nodded, and stepped away without another word.

“Juice?” I asked when the waiter was gone.  “What’s that about?”

“The reason I was telling you all that,” Mila said, “is because I wanted to make sure you’d be prepared for this.  Or at least as prepared as you can possibly be.  Dallas isn’t like other cities.  It’s got a little bit more…personality.”

This was more conversation than Mila and I had ever shared over the past six months.  She seemed freer, less detached.  There was almost a kind of warmth to her that I wouldn’t have expected.  It was a pleasant change from the stern demeanor with which she’d scolded me previously or the generally unconcerned air she typically wore like armor.

I was so distracted by my musings about her personality that my brain didn’t catch up to what she’d actually said until a waiter came to our table.  It wasn’t the same one who’d taken our order.  This waiter was heavily muscled and stretched his white shirt to the breaking point simply by breathing.  I thought I saw a splash of color underneath the shirt, where a tattoo might peek out, but he moved his arms before I could make out any detail.

Mila leaned back in her chair and looked calmly at the new waiter.  “Everything alright?”

“Chef Sergeant is occupied at the moment,” the looming waiter said.  His voice sounded like a bag of rocks dragged over a field of other, sharper rocks.  Some of the patrons still inside the pizza place looked over at our table in confusion before returning to their own meals.  “But he would like to speak with any old friends.”

“I thought that he might,” Mila said.

She stood up from the booth.  I attempted to follow suit, but stopped when the hefty waiter laid a frying pan sized hand on Mila’s comparatively delicate shoulder.  “You understand the Chef will not tolerate any disruption in his kitchen?”

“If anyone attempts to get in the way of things,” Mila replied, “I’ll help to keep the peace myself.”

The muscled waiter seemed to weigh that response, taking into account Mila’s size and bearing, before he nodded once.  “Right this way, then.”

Mila followed the waiter into the back of the restaurant and I followed Mila.  We walked past the bathrooms and into the kitchen; then, passing through the kitchen, we walked by not one, but two walk-in freezers.  We stopped at the second one.

“And the special?” Mila asked.

The muscled waiter shrugged, shoulders threatening to tear straight through the fabric of his shirt, and used a small key to unlock the walk-in freezer.  Then he left without another word.

“You said it’s different,” I asked Mila in a low whisper.  “Different how?”

She hauled on the freezer door.  It must have been even heavier than it looked because Mila struggled to get it started.  Once the door began to swing, though, it opened wide onto…the customary contents of a freezer.  There were boxes of patties, jars of sauce, sliced meats, and other odds and ends that I would expect to find in any pizza shop around the world.  Except, perhaps, in Italy.  They probably had entire herb gardens in their kitchens.

“After you,” Mila said, gesturing for me to step into the freezer.

I’d only worn a light jacket and the prospect of standing inside of a freezer didn’t really appeal to me, but I wasn’t about to back down in front of Mila.  So I braced myself and stepped into the freezer, expecting a blast of arctic air to shoot straight through the thin fabric of my clothing.

I felt a stirring as air washed over me, but no chill.  It wasn’t cold inside the freezer.  If anything, it was almost warm.

Mila stepped in after me and pulled the door shut.  When it closed, the lights went off as well, leaving Mila and I standing close to each other in the too-warm darkness.

“It’s different,” Mila said, “because they’ve got a particular kind of style here.”

A door opened, leading out of the freezer, but it wasn’t the door through which we’d entered.  The entire back wall of the freezer slid down, disappearing into the floor itself, and light flooded into the space so quickly that I shut my eyes by pure reflex.

When I opened them, I stared out in mute surprise at a thriving horde of people in cowboy hats and boots, wide belt buckles, and string ties.  There weren’t many women that I could see, but the ones who fell within my range of vision wore clothes very similar to the men’s, with lower cut tops and jeans that rose higher on their hips.  No less than six bartenders moved at a frenetic pace to keep up with the orders being yelled at them by their patrons.  An equal amount of waiters, distinguished only by the red handkerchiefs they wore around their necks, delivered food to the tables at breakneck speed.

Mila took a step out of the freezer and into the speakeasy – because, what else could it have been in an establishment “created” in the 1920s? – before indicating that I should do the same.  She turned slightly to one side and plucked what looked like a deep-fried Twinkie from the plate of a passing waiter.

“Welcome,” she said, “to the newest incarnation of the Dallas underworld.  What do you think?”

 

Chapter 66

Priority number one, after deplaning and making myself as comfortable as possible, was to take stock of the situation. My access to information was severely curtailed – most of the specialized programs on my regular systems were connected to the compromised network – but that didn’t rule out surface level, publicly available information. With enough time and dedication, I could probably duplicate the work of some of the lighter programs through sheer brute force.

If there was nothing noteworthy in the news, fantastic. I’d be able to focus entirely on preparing myself for the meeting with the Texan. While I personally liked him, his own feelings and motivations were still unknown. At worst, he might be actively antagonistic to our aims or previously aligned with the Magi. Even if things weren’t quite that bad, he could also just be concerned with us for the value of the information we could present. Either way, it wouldn’t be smart to think of him as an ally and, with the stakes so high, anyone who wasn’t an ally had to be treated with the utmost circumspection. I needed to make sure that all of our bases were covered and that an escape route was secured.

My preliminary search through the top news sites didn’t return any really damning information. The Atlanta news organizations had already moved on from our theft at the Sovereign, in favor of a local political scandal. There was no coverage whatsoever about the Mason. Mila and I hadn’t called the cops, for obvious reasons, and the thugs must have managed to get away before some civic-minded citizen raised an issue.

I felt weirdly okay with that. Sure, the men had been there to reveal my name to an enemy who wanted nothing less than my grisly death. But it hadn’t been personal. They’d taken on a job, just like I had chosen to do when the Lady revealed her true aims. If the team ended up in a conflict with them, I had little doubt that Mila would do her best to take them out of play…I just didn’t have any specific grudge against them.

Few things were weirder than the increasing elasticity of my moral standards as I descended deeper and deeper into the criminal ecosystem. I was aware of the goalposts moving clear to the horizon, but couldn’t bring myself to feel any particular way. I put that thought aside to deal with later…probably with professional help, whenever I could find the time for another rushed session with Doctor Bridges.

My second search was more specific and, appropriately, yielded more usable data. In the rush of activity after the job at the Sovereign, I’d prioritized my real identity, the Mouse’s real identity, and the increasingly complicated web of truths and lies that constituted my relationship with my grandmother. There’d been so much noise that I hadn’t really been able to think clearly for longer than I was comfortable with.

There wasn’t any noise now. Devlin and Michel were availing themselves of the bar downstairs. Mila was somewhere in the city, presumably seeking out the Dallas tough guys in order to convince them to sit out whatever fresh disaster we were going to incite. Virginia and CJ were…I didn’t want to think about where Virginia and CJ were, except to know that my grandmother wasn’t asking questions I’d have to cleverly avoid.

That left me more time to ponder a wrinkle that I’d relegated to the back burner: the cat burglar, Barrett, who’d caught us in the act of breaking into the Sovereign’s upper floors.

There was a nonzero chance that nothing more than coincidence had been responsible for that meeting. People did steal jewelry on a semi-regular basis. Sotheby’s, in particular, was responsible for a staggering amount of wealth in gems, art, and other easily liquidated goods. In easier times, it was the sort of job that Devlin and I might have accepted a contract for or even undertaken on our own prerogative.

Coincidence and I, however, had fallen out of favor with each other a long time ago. It wasn’t just smarter to assume that things were connected; it was the only real, sane choice and I’d rather be accused of paranoia than get caught flat footed again.

Without access to the Community’s resources, there was only so much that I’d be able to find out about Barrett. So, I didn’t attempt to go that route. Instead, I focused my attention in another direction. Devlin and I had been after information; what, then, had Barrett broken into the Sovereign to steal?

I spent thirty minutes and two hotel-sized cans of Diet Coke perusing through Sotheby’s public listings. As near as I could tell, nothing of considerable value had gone missing in the last year, if not longer. Of course, that didn’t necessarily mean anything. Items of interest were sometimes taken out of rotation for a period, so that the desire could build to a higher level. And, even if something had been stolen, Sotheby’s wasn’t in the habit of advertising their security failures. They were as likely to fabricate a sale and make a backroom deal to keep all concerned parties quiet as anything else.

My work did allow me to compile a list of items that might have gone missing. One-of-a-kind necklaces and rings, staggeringly expensive watches, and priceless manuscripts topped that list. I ruled out all of the art larger than a breadbox immediately. Barrett had jumped out of a window to make his escape. No matter how skilled he was, that was the sort of thing that would make him sweat. Moisture could ruin artwork, thereby invalidating all of the effort spent acquiring the damn thing in the first place.

Jewelry, though, could be secured safely in a variety of ways. Plus, the idea of a cat burglar sneaking into a high rise to make off with a fistful of Harry Winston pieces appealed to me aesthetically. If he’d been after nothing but money, the chances that his activities had anything to do with us dropped dramatically.

Something about that thought sat wrong with me. I certainly didn’t want another player to deal with, least of all whose motivations were murky at best. But I almost wanted to believe that Barrett had some part in unfolding events. Maybe it was just the allure of something unknown that I couldn’t let go of. Maybe I’d just grown addicted to complexity in the short time since Devlin had reappeared in my life.

Maybe I needed to schedule that appointment sooner, rather than later.

I gave the public listing another in-depth examination, just to make sure that I hadn’t missed anything relevant, before I closed out that window and spent another fifteen minutes typing up a sort of manifest. Devlin knew more than I did about what sold well in the underworld and who might be suited to deal with particular items. When he returned from the bar – or in the morning, which was far more likely to yield positive results – he could look over what I’d assembled and provide further direction.

For no particular reason, I opened my web browser, navigated to a news article discussing the break-in at the Sovereign, and carefully read through its contents.  There were some factual errors, but nothing substantial enough to warrant my interest. The police believed that the robbery had been an inside job, for instance, considering the only other possible entry point and the silence of the guards. Whatever check Virginia had written for the guards, at least they were staying quiet. With their silence added to the distraction that Barrett had caused, it didn’t seem like anyone was looking for my team, specifically.

Then, I scrolled all the way down to the comments section. As a rule, I avoided comments like the plague. In my experience, internet trolls possessed a supernatural ability to make every story about race, no matter the original content, so that they could use their considerable repertoire of slurs against anyone who dared to disagree with whatever insane position was in vogue on a given day.

Still, I needed to get a read on more than just the facts of the break-in at the Sovereign. If I could wrap my head around the general attitude about the job, a chance perspective might provoke an epiphany. It was a long shot, but my entire life had become nothing other than a series of long shots, so I didn’t really have much to lose.

Unsurprisingly, the comment section was a cesspool of the lowest, most debased commentators the internet could provide. As a decorated veteran of the internet, I skimmed across the comments without paying any particular attention to the various racial slurs and insults lobbed from one user to another.

It wasn’t until I reached the end of one page, while I was forced to wait for the next page to load, that I noticed one comment that didn’t fit the mold. Where other users were busily insulting each other’s parentage or promoting the conspiracy du jour, a single user had written out a succinct message with proper grammar and punctuation. It was so abnormal that I read the message in its entirety.

Speaking as someone with personal knowledge of this crime,

I’ve got to say that the facts are all wrong here.

No one would go through all the trouble of climbing a building

If they weren’t going to get credit for it later.

~B

I stared at the screen for several seconds, hit refresh, and then stared at the screen for several more seconds before my thoughts organized themselves into something resembling a cohesive whole.

B” was obviously Barrett, the cat burglar. Nothing else made any sense. As far as I knew, there hadn’t been a third party to report on events to anyone not already inside the Sovereign. Sure, someone else could have been impersonating the actual thief for internet credit, but what would the point be?

For that matter, what was the point of Barrett commenting on articles about his own theft?

The answer dawned on me a moment or two later. Even without Devlin’s natural gift at understanding motivations or even Michel’s talent at picking up on emotions, I’d talked with Barrett at the Sovereign.  I didn’t need to call for one of them every single time I needed to get an impression of someone.

While escaping from an otherwise successful job, he’d stopped to banter and flirt with me. That meant he was cocky. Cocky wasn’t always a deal breaker, of course – Devlin was often cocky, as were most successful thieves at his level – but self-confidence could easily turn into egotism. As soon as criminals started believing their own hype, it was a short slide down the hill into complete indolence and utter failure.

Barrett hadn’t failed, though, which led me to wonder how long he’d been involved in his line of work. The Sovereign wasn’t an easy target, after all. Most thieves, I imagined, would prefer to cut their teeth on private residences and less heavily secured areas. But Barrett had climbed up the building without any obvious signs of difficulty and he’d made his escape without leaving any sign he hadn’t wanted to leave.

I wasn’t willing to accept that he was that naturally talented, completely without any equivalent amount of experience. My own personal skills had only been learned through hours of flawed programs and tripped alarms. No one could reach Barrett’s apparent level of skill without some serious time spent in the underworld.

It was possible, but I didn’t have to like it.

Hauling myself out of my thoughts and back into the present, I clicked on the throwaway account and went through that user’s post history with a fine toothed comb. The work went as quickly could be expected, but Barrett must have used this account for more than a few things: the username appeared on a dozen different forums that I knew about. As such, it was already full night by the time I finished drawing up a mental profile on the man, judged solely from what he’d chosen to post on and what he’d said during our brief conversation. What did I know and what could I extrapolate from that?

He was confident. That had been obvious and his comment on the article only reinforced that fact. He was skilled, too. Again, not a difficult conclusion to reach, considering I’d personally seen the guards he’d incapacitated and watched as he’d literally leaped out of a window to freedom.

Also, he was handsome.

That was hardly relevant to my mental profile, but I couldn’t manage to shake that impression from my thoughts. A mask had concealed his face so, for all I knew, he could have been horribly disfigured in some way. But he’d sounded handsome; a rich voice, confident posture, arms muscular enough that I’d been able to see the outline of his biceps through his tight shirt. He was a good bit taller than me – not towering, like a giant out of folklore, but just tall enough – and that also appealed to my sensibilities.

I tried, unsuccessfully, to focus on the relevant details I’d need, in case the team ran into Barrett again in the future. Every attempt to focus my attention on other things, however, only led back to another mental evaluation of the man’s physique and bearing.

Someone cleared their throat from behind me. “You’re still up?”

My first instinct – to jump out of my chair in shock – was hampered when my feet got caught. I stumbled and caught myself against the the computer table before turning cautiously to greet my visitor.

It was Mila. She’d changed into a pair of loose, comfortable sweat pants and a t-shirt. She watched me with her dark, expressionless eyes and said nothing at all until I’d settled back into my chair.

You’re still up?” Mila repeated.

Obviously,” I said. Then, feeling bad about being so bitchy, I added, “Couldn’t sleep, so I figured I could get some work done.”

What’re you working on?”

I toyed with the idea of laying everything out for Mila to digest. She probably didn’t know much more about computers than Devlin and he was easily the least tech-savvy person I knew. Odds were that I could use a ton of professional sounding terms and potentially run her off. I still wasn’t feeling one hundred percent about our relationship and I wanted some to sort through my feelings on the matter.

Research,” I said finally. “Devlin told you about the cat burglar?’

Mila nodded. “He told me as much as he knew. Cat burglars aren’t really physical threats, though.”

I blinked. “You’ve dealt with some before?”

Not all that often,” she answered, shrugging with only one shoulder. “They avoid confrontation, whenever possible. Some people still crave the attention, but they don’t last very long in the business.”

More or less what I’d suspected, then. It was good to get confirmation that my read on Barrett had been correct…or, it had been correct so far.

Is he going to be someone we need to worry about?” I asked.

You should worry about everyone,” Mila replied instantly.

You know what I mean.”

She considered the question for upwards of thirty seconds before she responded. “I’m going shopping in a few hours,” she said. “And I’m thinking you should come with me.”

To go shopping? I’ve got plenty of clothes that I….” I trailed off, at the exact moment that Mila’s implication sunk in. “You want me to go with you into the underworld?”

As long as you’re going to be heading into the field sporadically, then yes.” Mila’s eyes were as flat and unforgiving as emeralds. “I’ll protect you when I can, but you’ve got to learn how to take care of yourself without relying someone to swoop in and save the day.”

I handled the slaver in Tangiers just fine,” I pointed out.

You got lucky,” Mila countered. “And you got lucky with those two thugs at the museum, too.”

I couldn’t think of anything to refute her statement.

I don’t do the underworld,” I said, lamely.

Neither did I, at first. You’re smart. You’ll pick it up.”

I opened my mouth to protest further, maybe even to change her mind, but I relented when I noticed a blossoming spot of red on her shirt, just below her sternum. It wasn’t enough that she would notice it, but the color red happened to catch my eye.

What’s that?” I asked and pointed.

Mila seemed surprised to hear a question about her well-being. She looked down at the expanding red on her shirt and sighed. “It’s nothing.”

It’s nothing? You’re bleeding!”

Mila shrugged again. “It’s not serious. I can sew it back up before we head out.”

She sewed up her own wounds? My brain steadfastly refused to accept that as reality.

Anyway,” Mila said, “you’ve got some time.  Take a nap, if you need to. It’ll give me an opportunity to figure out some way to keep you from killing yourself in the future.”

A half-dozen arguments sprang to mind, but I dismissed them all with a halfhearted effort of will. Mila hadn’t asked me to come with her; she’d informed me of our plans for the following day. Something told me that I wouldn’t be able to convince her to change her mind.

Fine,” I said.

Mila paused, tilted her head to an uncomfortable angle, and attempted to read my computer screen. “You said this was research?

Immediately, I minimized the web page featuring Barrett’s online comment and brought up something both suitable and boring to occupy the screen: financial reports, dating back for at least a decade. So many businesses were owned by the Magi, that I’d written a database for the sole purpose of tracking transitions. It would have to do, in a pinch.

Mila examined the screen for five seconds and then shook her head. “Whatever,” she said. “If you think that’s going to help us, by all means.”

I do think that,” I said, “and I am going to keep doing it.”

This is your world,”Mila said. “I’m just visiting. See you 

“Later.” I closed the spreadsheet, now that it had fulfilled its purpose. “What time are you thinking?  So that I can set an alarm and wake up from my nap?”

Mila laughed out loud. “You’ll know when to get up, trust me. Just don’t back out on me.”

She was gone before I had an opportunity to craft a significant rebuttal. That left me alone in my bedroom, with only my thoughts and a computer in front of me. I stared at Barrett’s message , trying to decipher some hidden meaning, when another idea occurred to me. I decided, unilaterally, that a talented cat burglar might be useful to have on our sides.

I scrolled down to Barrett’s comment, hit reply, and spent the next several minutes preparing a message for him to read…hopefully.

I don’t seem to remember seeing you do anything impressive.

Unless running away suddenly counts as impressive.

No reply came for ten, fifteen, forty-five minutes. Two hours went by and still nothing. Finally, I closed down my workstation and got under the covers. I didn’t really sleep until morning,; my brain, taxed and strained, drifted from one thought tot he next, never stopping long enough for me to outline the full picture.

One element kept recurring, though: Barrett. And with that reoccurence came several questions that I wasn’t quite ready or willing to answer.

Why did I care so much about this one random burglar? What had he been after in the Sovreign and did it relate to our own goals?  Why had I panicked and hidden the comment from Mila, the person who was least likely to care at all about anyone outside of our team? And, perhaps most importantly, why had I felt compelled to write out a response to his comment?

The answers, like sleep, never came.

Chapter 65

I expected Virginia to corner me with more questions at the first opportunity, but she kept her thoughts to herself on the car ride to the airport and while we made our way through security. CJ was with her, which didn’t really surprise me if I was being honest with myself. His age notwithstanding, CJ was apparently a part of her life now. My dissatisfaction with that fact didn’t change the reality of the situation. Plus, if she were willing to go out on a pretty far limb for me, jetting off to Texas at the drop of a hat without anywhere near enough information to make an informed decision, I could tolerate the presence of her boy toy.

We hadn’t disposed of the fictional marriage between Michel and myself, for some reason. It wouldn’t have taken much effort to spin a tale wherein Michel was in trouble with the same people as I was – he was, in point of fact, even if I didn’t want to explain exactly how we’d gotten into that trouble – but I’d allowed her to keep believing that fantasy.

I didn’t know exactly why I hesitated to correct the record. It wouldn’t change things all that much. But something in me balked at the idea and I’d learned from Devlin to follow those instincts whenever possible. Sometimes, the motivating factor for some gut-deep decision was simple anxiety or nervousness; other times, it was the thinnest razor edge of warning that allowed us to duck out of a building just ahead of the cops. Better safe than sorry.

We flew in style, of course; nothing less than first class for the illustrious Virginia Ford. I’d enjoyed similar luxuries myself, when the circumstances of the job had allowed me to be particular about the mode of transportation. Virginia hadn’t been given the time to arrange anything elaborate and she hadn’t been told the real stakes of our little game, but she was smart enough to pick up on the general vibe. Without any way of knowing exactly who was after me or how many people they might have in their employ, she’d gone with the simplest method of ensuring that we wouldn’t be seen or overheard.

She’d purchased every seat in the plane’s first class section.

“Was this really necessary?” I asked, while Michel helped me stow away my carry-on bags.

There were posted limits as to how large a carry-on bag could be and how many bags could be carried on board the plane to begin with. I had read those limits carefully, considered the relative merits of adhering to them, and then watched quietly while my grandmother browbeat no fewer than three officials who attempted to explain the policy to her. Ultimately, they had conceded the point when she’d casually mentioned exactly how much she personally spent on travel.

I’d caught flights with her before, as a child, and she hadn’t been anywhere near as abrasive. Either her personality had shifted drastically in the intervening years – not impossible, considering her newfound sense of family and how disconcertingly warm she seemed to be – or she’d understood exactly why I needed four large, heavy black bags.

For the moment, the full workstation she’d purchased for me was the only uncompromised piece of gear that I possessed. I wasn’t going to let it out of my seat for any longer than absolutely necessary. If the Mouse or, more likely, one of his low-rent thugs for hire got their hands on the physical workstation itself, there was no end to the damage they could cause.

I’d have to supplement my supply of equipment in Dallas, while waiting to meet with the Texan. At least another laptop – probably two, but I’d have to see what was publicly available and what the Dallas underworld had to offer – and another tablet would be absolutely essential. Various odds and ends, like USB drives and button cameras would be easier to purchase. In fact, I could send out one of the boys to handle that while I dealt with more specialized problems.

My grandmother was talking and I’d tuned her out, in favor of my own thoughts. She pursed her lips and frowned at me.

“Sorry,” I said. Michel finished stuffing the final bag of disassembled equipment into the overhead compartment, then collapsed into an overly plush seat. “Sorry, just in my head about things.”

“Things I’m not allowed to ask about?” Virginia asked. She waved away my protest before I’d done more than open my mouth. “No, no. Don’t bother coming up with some reason why you can’t tell me the truth. I’d rather you be honest about keeping secrets than start making up stories.”

I started digging into my purse, more to conceal my guilty expression than out of any real desire to locate something. Still, when my fingers touched a tube of lipstick, I pulled it out and started applying it. Anything to keep my hands busy.

“I can at least appreciate that,” Virginia said, “even if I don’t like it much. We’ve all got secrets, Sarah, and I’ve been alive long enough to have more than most. Never had any secrets as dangerous as the one you seem to be keeping, I got to say.”

I didn’t really know what to say, so I said nothing. In a different part of the cabin, Mila and Devlin were placing their own luggage into their respective overheard containers. They were talking about something, but the distance was too great for me to catch their words. Devlin was smiling, though, so I could only assume that Mila wasn’t regaling him with the tale of our argument at the mansion.

She and I hadn’t spoken much since then but, at the same time, she and I didn’t really speak all that much to begin with. Mila worked closely with Devlin, whenever he needed to go into the field to accomplish some goal, and she spent free time with Michel for some reason that I couldn’t even begin to identify. But, despite being the only two women on the team, I didn’t often find myself with reasons to talk about things with her. Mila, for her part, appeared perfectly content with the nonspeaking arrangement.

Devlin glanced up from his conversation and caught me watching him. His eyes flitted away from mine for an instant, towards Virginia, and he tilted his head in a questioning gesture. I shook my head in the smallest movement I could manage. I didn’t need his help here. This was awkward, and my grandmother was proving herself to be a world class heavyweight in the martial arts style of ‘passive aggression,’ but this particular conversation didn’t require his skillset.

“It’s complicated,” I said, for what felt like the millionth time.

“Must be,” Virginia replied. “But I am going to find out the truth of all this. You know that, right?”

For a single moment, I wasn’t whether I wanted her to unravel the whole sordid affair or not. A pair of uninvolved eyes might be able to make some sense out of everything, where mine and Devlin’s were too close to the problem to see the whole shape of things. However, I couldn’t imagine what any conversation involving my extra-legal activities would sound like.

“I know,” I said.

CJ finished his battle with Virginia’s considerable quantity of luggage. He took a seat a reasonable distance away from my grandmother and me, waiting for her to finish the conversation. Even though he didn’t say anything to her, and despite the fact that he seemed perfectly content to stay seated in perpetuity, Virginia took the opportunity to join him. She didn’t bother with any formal conclusion to our chat.

I stood alone in the cabin for a few seconds, gathering my thoughts, and then walked over to the empty seat next to Michel. Devlin and I still had important things to discuss – specifically, what type of contacts he’d be able to reach out to when we reached Dallas – but I couldn’t think of any way to sit with him that wouldn’t pique my grandmother’s interest.

Michel sat up when I joined him. “How are you doing?” He kept his voice low enough that only I could hear him.

“My friend is moonlighting as the worst possible enemy I’ve ever heard about in my field,” I said. “Or the worst enemy was moonlighting as my friend. I’m really not sure. Either way, I can’t use any of my regular equipment and now I’m on a thirty day timer to pull off what a group of talented, dedicated hackers couldn’t accomplish in almost an entire year.”

He gave me a noncommittal nod, offering neither condolences or recriminations. I appreciated the silent support so much that I felt myself digging deeper into my emotions, revealing more of my inner thoughts than necessary.

“Now we’re flying off to Dallas at the drop of a hat,” I continued, “on the off-chance that yet another unnamed mystery man can give me some small clue to follow. If not, then I’ll have to start from square zero and hope to find some kind of a miracle. Otherwise, all of us are in serious, almost certainly mortal, danger and I wouldn’t have the foggiest idea how to get us out of it.”

Michel nodded again. He took a sip from a bottle of water, urging me to unburden myself without actually speaking the words.

And,” I said, volume going up a little bit despite my intentions to keep my voice low, “to top it all off, I’ve got to do all of this without telling my grandmother the first thing about what I’m involved in.”

I took a deep breath, then another. Those were thoughts I hadn’t spoken out loud before, even to Devlin. Of course, I didn’t really need to vocalize some things with him. They were simply understood. But putting voice to the thoughts storming back and forth through my head had been…relieving? Comforting? The right word escaped me, but it felt better to have those thoughts out in the air than to keep them bottled up.

“So,” Michel said, when he was sure that I didn’t have more to say, “you are doing well, you would say?”

I narrowed my eyes and glared at him, but couldn’t keep the pressure up. Relaxing into a little smile, I shrugged. “Yeah. Not any worse than normal, I guess.”

“Did you ever imagine that we would end up here?” Michel asked.

“Here, as in Atlanta? Or here, as in underneath this particular guillotine?”

“Both?”

I considered the question for a handful of seconds before answering. “I live – well, lived, maybe – in San Francisco. That’s not quite the technology capital of the world, but it’s close.”

“You chose that place so that you would stay up to date on the newest developments?”

I hadn’t. At least, I hadn’t consciously. When I’d left Devlin, I’d moved to San Francisco for a change. Our lifestyle hadn’t allowed for a permanent residence and I’d enjoyed that about my life, while he and I had been tied together on multiple levels. But the choice of that particular residence…well, Michel might have alighted upon a truth I hadn’t really allowed myself to think about.

“Maybe,” I said. “I’ve always been into technology, even when I’m not using it to do…what we do. But that’s not why I mentioned my old house. I might have decided to live there because I wanted to keep a finger on the pulse of developing tech, you’re right, but I absolutely decided to settle down in a place as far away from my parents as possible.”

“And San Francisco was that place?”

“As much as it could be. Mom and Dad move around too much for me to ever really get away from them but, at the same time, they aren’t really looking for me either. My sister is shacked up with her partner somewhere. I never really bothered finding out.”

“But your grandmother is here,” Michel said. “So you decided to move away from here, to make sure that you would not have to see her? Or, perhaps, for her to see you?”

For someone without Devlin’s natural ability to read people, Michel was frighteningly good at understanding emotions. It occurred to me that Mila also possessed a similar, if blunt, way of reading body language and figuring out when I was bothered.

That struck me as profoundly unfair. Of the four members of my team, three were able to figure out what I was thinking without my consent. Meanwhile, even I wasn’t sure what was on my mind from one moment to the next.

“That might be it,” I admitted grudgingly. “Anyway, to answer the other part of your question…no, not really. I knew that what we did was dangerous, sure, but nothing like this. It just seemed more like…”

I trailed off. I’d been about to say that our jobs had seemed like more of a game than anything serious, but that wasn’t exactly true. Devlin and I had skipped out of a job millimeters ahead of the police too often and he’d never been particularly shy about the shadier associates he accepted contracts from. But the danger had never been targeted at me personally. I worked my magic on computers, alarm systems, and electronic cameras wile Devlin shouldered the lion’s share of actual risk.

As I wrapped my head around that particular thought, I realized that I’d never really considered what Devlin exposed himself to. He seemed perfectly at ease, moving between some of the more dangerous denizens of various underworlds, and I’d been okay allowing him to do it on his own. Or…maybe not allowing, but I hadn’t put up much of a fight to be included in that side of things.

“If I had known that your life would be so interesting,” Michel said, “I do not know that I would have driven Devlin to the airport so many months ago.”

I shrugged halfheartedly. “That’s not a surprise. Signing up for a quick fare is a whole different thing than committing yourself to…whatever this is, we’re involved in.”

Michel shook his head. “That is not what I meant.”

“Then what did you mean?”

“If you had told me on that day, before Devlin got into my car, that it would lead to a situation like this, I would have driven away as fast as possible. My life was simpler, even if I was not happy living it.” He smiled, revealing a broad strip of even, white teeth. “But if I could go back, knowing what I know…I would still do the exact same thing.”

Why?” I asked. The question slipped out of my mouth before I’d even consciously formed the word in my mind.

Michel spent a long time picking the right words. He looked out of the window at the tarmac, humming something under his breath that I couldn’t quite make out. Just when I thought he wasn’t going to answer, he turned back to me.

“Because,” he said, “at least now I know what I am capable of. And I would rather live my life risking something to be happy, than risking nothing and being safe.”

A wave of envy bubbled up from my stomach. Michel knew, seemingly without a doubt, exactly where he wanted to be. More than any of us, he’d had the option of a peaceful life. He wouldn’t have lived in luxury or splendor, but he could have lived without constantly checking over his shoulder for some new threat. And, instead of leaping at the chance to be free of all the worry and anxiety that came packaged with our assignment from the Lady, he’d chosen again and again to throw his lot in with us. It was either completely insane or staggeringly admirable. Or both. Probably both.

I’d had the opportunity too, a long time ago. With my family’s connections and my own not-inconsiderable personal wealth, I could have followed in my sister’s footsteps. A series of charities run the right way could have done a lot of good in the world. Even if that route would have meant red tape and banker’s fees, it would have afforded me safety. I could be lounging on a beach on some tropical island, contributing my money instead of my time and sanity.

Why hadn’t I, then? Why, when that first fateful moment had appeared in front of me, had I chosen to steal from a faux charity instead of building up one of my own? And why I had continued taking from the fat cats and socialites who only claimed to help because it would qualify as a healthy tax write-off?

When I’d first met Devlin, preparing to steal an original work of art, why hadn’t I immediately run to the nearest security guards?

Michel was watching me. I smoothed my face out to an expressionless, mildly pleasant mask the instant I noticed his attention. The effort probably hadn’t kept him from reading my face while I’d been lost in my own thoughts. In a way, I hoped that he’d be able to tell me what I was really thinking because I sure as hell didn’t know.

But Michel didn’t offer any sage advice and nothing that I could see on his face displayed any divine inspiration. “We will find a way to do this,” he said. “We always do.”

My first instinct was to point out the stakes were different this time. My second instinct kept me from voicing that thought. They were only different for me. For the rest of the team, every job could be the one where a single mistake led to disaster.

Michel closed his eyes. By the time the plane was in the air, he was fast asleep. A quick glance around the cabin showed that CJ and Virginia were holding hands and slumbering peacefully on their own, several rows behind me. Mila and Devlin had separated to different sides of the plane, each occupied with tasks of their own.

Mila was twirling an over-sized metallic pen between her fingers like a miniature baton. She didn’t appear to be paying attention to her hands, but when the pen threatened to go rocketing out of her control, she adjusted the angle and caught the projectile with her other hand in one smooth motion.

Devlin was reading something on an E-reader he must have borrowed from my grandmother. He glanced up from his book when my eyes fell on him and grinned. I smiled back.

Then, more to avoid any conversation than out of actual exhaustion, I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep. I hadn’t felt particularly tired but, sooner than I would have thought possible, the traces of adrenaline I’d been running on began to run out. My thoughts began to uncouple and my mind wandered.

At some point, I fell asleep and didn’t dream. When I woke, I was no closer to figuring out the complex inner workings of my own mind. I was, however, closer to the point when I’d have to make a choice, one way or the other.

 

Chapter 64

As waiting went, three days was almost impossibly short. Devlin and I had spent entire weeks idling in various European countries while a potential contact took steps to secure the area and not every one of those occasions had ended with an actual meeting. That the Texan was able to clear his schedule on such short notice was a point in his favor; added to the other positive marks I’d given him for professionalism and personality, I found myself thinking that a purely social visit with the man wouldn’t be entirely unpleasant.

That said, deducting three days from my thirty day time limit was a tough pill to swallow. There would likely be other delays and pauses while we tried to work out the identities of the remaining members of the Community, to say nothing of how long a concerted campaign against the Mouse might take. When my ransomware expired and my full network – with all of its banking information, aliases, and my real name – lay bare to the Mouse’s machinations, it wouldn’t matter how close we’d come to taking him down. That, as the saying went, would simply be that.

There was nothing to do for it, though. If the Texan wanted to meet in three days, I’d simply have to find something productive to do with the free time. Normally, I spent down time working on programs for an upcoming job, pursuing leads, or idly monitoring the information returned by my automated web crawlers. I couldn’t use those, for obvious reasons, and there wasn’t exactly a target for me to set my sights on. Devlin was out, doing whatever it was he did with the local underworld.  Michel had accompanied him, to serve as driver and companion. Mila was…somewhere in the house, probably. Or maybe she’d gone out in search of new sweets. I didn’t really want to hunt her down and, I suspected, she didn’t really want to be found by me.

With nothing concrete to occupy my attention, and absolutely no desire to be alone with my thoughts for any length of time, I turned to my new workstation. I’d gone through the trouble of assembling it and used it for brute number processing, but had otherwise kept it removed from my larger network. There were a few useful, readily available programs that I’d installed, more out of habit than necessity, but nothing that the Mouse could have compromised.

At least, I hoped that he couldn’t. If his skills transcended talented and verged into the realm of supernatural, though, there wasn’t really anything I could do.

I minimized the email program, instead of closing it outright, and double-clicked on a colorful desktop icon labeled Worlds of Wonder. I hadn’t played the game in at least a year and I hadn’t even bothered opening it in about six months. Still, when I loaded up the default configuration of programs, settings, and measures of protection, Worlds of Wonder always seemed to make it to my desktop.

Thankfully, the account that paid for my monthly account was separate from the rest of my extra-illegal accounts. The subscription fee was small enough that I essentially forgot about it from month to month. Without my direct intervention, the account had been drafted at regular intervals and my subscription remained active. I just needed to wait for a few minutes while patches updated before I could log in to the game proper.

There was a new chat function available at the splash page, which reminded me just a little bit of the Community’s room. Of course, there were numerous differences – security, first and foremost, but also the Community’s focus on private chat rooms – but the similarity was enough to send a chill down my spine.

That chill was magnified when a low pitched tone announced a new private message from someone else logged into the game. My heart rate tripled for a few moments before I realized that I hadn’t adjusted my settings to private and that the message had come from a member of my own guild. I could’ve sworn they would have kicked me after my prolonged absence but, at the same time, it was possible that they just hadn’t gotten around to it.

 

WinterEyes: Waiting for the latest patch?

 

I weighed the merits of ignoring the question. Ultimately, I decided against being rude for rudeness’ sake.

 

Lisander: What else? Can’t do anything until this download finishes.

WinterEyes: You didn’t preload the files?

Lisander: Haven’t really had a chance to play the game lately.

WinterEyes: Oh? What’ve you been up to?

 

Winter’s questions were probably innocent, but my nerves had been frayed to the point of disintegration by revelations in the recent past. There was little possibility that someone could have hunted down my screen name and even less that any interested party would go through the trouble of creating an account of their own for the sole purpose of stalking me into Worlds of Wonder. But, if there was one person who could find me, she would absolutely be willing to go through all of that work simply for effect.

 

Lisander: I’m surprised that you’re so bad at this.

WinterEyes: What? What are you talking about?

Lisander: You know exactly what I’m talking about.

 

The chat went quiet for a handful of seconds. When Winter wrote again, I could practically feel the difference in tone, even without the benefit of vocal cues or nonverbal tells.

 

WinterEyes: What gave me away?

Lisander: Just a little too heavy-handed with the questions. Next time, try to ease into it?

WinterEyes: I’ll keep that in mind. I must admit, I don’t have much experience with this…particular medium.

Lisander: What brings you here this time, then?

WinterEyes: I could hardly communicate with you via our customary channels, now could I?

 

I blinked, then reminded myself who I was talking to. If the Lady had any defining characteristics, aside from her preternatural timing and impossibly deep closet, it was her ability to know things that she simply should not know.

 

Lisander: If you already know that, then that makes this a lot easier. Did you know about the Mouse?

WinterEyes: Your friend? No, I didn’t. I was only vaguely aware of Caelum’s previous activities and most of that information was acquired in the recent past.

Lisander: When you realized that we were likely to end up going against him?

WinterEyes: Precisely.

Lisander: Do you know anything that might be helpful, at all?

 

The Lady didn’t respond for a long time. In the background, the patch finished downloading and a bright green button labeled “Play Game” lit up in the center of the screen. I moved it out of the way to focus instead on the conversation. Any desire to waste time gaming had evaporated with the Lady’s first message.

 

WinterEyes: Nothing salient comes to mind, I’m sorry to say.

Lisander: Nothing? Seriously?

WinterEyes: The Mouse – or should I say Caelum? – has done an exemplary job keeping his activities secret.

 

It was disheartening to hear that from her own lips, so to speak, but it wasn’t necessarily surprising. Being a hacker came with a raft of benefits, one of which was our inherent mobility. With proper planning, I could easily make it seem like there were three or four of me, operating on as many different continents. If I could do that, the Mouse would certainly be able to perform feats much more technically complicated.  It could be almost impossible to track down a hacker who was dedicated to remaining off of the grid without a similar skillset and a lot of time to kill.

At the same time, I did have more to go on than the average person. I’d worked with the Mouse on different projects over the years, probably more closely than anyone else in the Community. With their assistance, I’d be much better equipped to deal with his attacks; with the Lady’s help, though, there was a slim chance that I’d be able to find some sort of pattern. Both were valid avenues to pursue and I saw no reason to limit myself to only one angle of attack.

 

Lisander: If I told you about the attacks I knew, for sure, he’d been a part of, what could you do with that?

WinterEyes: There are any number of digital intrusions that could be attributed to him, but just as many that might simply be the work of talented copycats. Eliminating false positives could go a long way towards isolating more actionable intelligence.

Lisander: How can I get that information to you? I can’t use your email addresses.

WinterEyes: I know your official addresses; if you could send a list of what you know to one of the addresses I’ve used previously, I’ll know to treat it as an official communique.

 

While I was relieved to discover that we weren’t completely cut off from our employer, I couldn’t help but experience a sharp spike of irritation. I’d thought that the throwaway addresses I’d used to communicate with the Lady might serve as a connection to her real name. Through them, I’d hoped to follow a trail leading to her front doorstep. If she was comfortable with me using potentially compromised accounts to reach out, then she presumably wasn’t concerned with anyone using those throwaways against her.

Two steps forward. One step back. Or two steps back. I wasn’t really sure.

A thought occurred to me while I mused over which email address to contact her on. I allowed the idea to percolate in my head, turned it around to examine it from different angles, and decided to ask her a personal question. Or, more accurately, as close to a personal question as I thought she might actually answer.

 

Lisander:How long have you had this account?

WinterEyes: A year, perhaps longer. Is that relevant for some reason?

 

It wasn’t particularly relevant, except that her answer couldn’t possibly have been true. I’d chosen my screen name based on a hacker character from a Swedish crime novel. Like most of my online sobriquets, it had been a careful choice that meant something to me, but likely wouldn’t mean much to anyone else. The Lady had done similar things throughout our time in her employ and this screen name wasn’t any different.

WinterEyes wasn’t indicative of anything, on its face, but I’d been re-reading The Three Musketeers in my off-time, even before discovering the Mouse’s double identity. The female antagonist – if antagonist was the right word, considering the time frame of the novel and the general attitude towards women with agendas of their own – had been Milady de Winter, a spy in the employ of the evil Cardinal. Even if I discounted the connection between this screen name and the fact that the Mouseketeer was our latest adversary, I couldn’t ignore the fact that she’d chosen a name which included the nickname that Devlin had only given her six months ago.

She was lying.  Possibly.  If I was right, then I’d even caught her in a lie. Granted, it wasn’t a very large lie, and I had no idea why she’d pick this particular non-issue to obfuscate about, but it was still something noteworthy. I made a mental note about the discrepancy and started considering ways that I might be able to use it in the future.

I would have asked her more questions, in an attempt to suss out other areas where the Lady graduated from misleading answers to outright falsehoods, but a knock came from my door at that instant.

“Sarah?” Devlin asked, from the hallway outside of my room.

“One second,” I said.

 

Lisander: No reason. I’ll get that information to you; you’ll let us know when you find something out?

WinterEyes: If I find something, then yes, of course. I assume you will be dealing with your former friend at some point in the near future?

 

From the moment I’d realized the Mouse’s double identity as the digital bogeyman Caelum, I’d known that I’d have to deal with him at some point. What I remembered from his previous rampage told me that he was too talented to simply sideline or waylay. Anything short of removing the Mouse from play entirely would only leave me unguarded against a blindside at a later date. As long as I was working for the Lady, I would have to keep an eye out for attacks and traps.

It just sounded so final coming from her. As far as I knew, the Lady hadn’t directly killed anyone before…but, at the same time, I’d spoken to her in person and I didn’t doubt for a second that she was capable of it, should the situation require it. Even Fatima had been willing to take a life – by her own hands, in fact – when pressed into a corner.

I wasn’t sure if I had the stomach for that, though.

 

Lisander: One way or another, yes.

WinterEyes: Best of luck, then. I will be in touch.

 

She logged out of the game. A moment later, the character WinterEyes left my guild. I didn’t bother double-checking to see if the character still existed.

“Come in,” I called out as I closed the game and started typing out a list of incidents.

Devlin slipped into the room and closed the door, but he lingered at the entrance long enough that I looked up from my work and raised an eyebrow in his direction.

“How did it go?” Devlin asked.

“How did what go?”

“You and Mila,” he said. “I figured the two of you needed to clear the air about…whatever it is that’s been going on.”

My eyebrow climbed a little steeper. “What do you mean by that?”

He shrugged one shoulder. “I don’t know exactly what it is. But I can tell that you’re both on edge about something. I was hoping that you’d be able to sort it out if you could have a conversation without worrying about witnesses or anything like that.”

A sharp retort rose to my lips from out of nowhere and I just barely managed to bite it back. I took a deep breath instead and stepped down on the urge to say anything untoward. “Anyway. Did you actually get any work done or were you busy micromanaging my relationships?”

Ooops. I stepped down a little harder on my emotions.

Devlin didn’t react to the tone, even though he’d certainly noticed it. “I didn’t learn anything we couldn’t have figured out on our own. Some of the local heavies were contacted by an anonymous benefactor attempting to purchase their services for a ‘pickup.’ The ones I talked to passed on the business opportunity out of self-preservation, which forced the Mouse to go with less scrupulous hires.”

“Self-preservation?”

“As it turns out, there’s a rumor going through the underworld. Not just the one in Atlanta, in fact, but several in Europe and at least two in Asia. People are getting real skittish about working with people they don’t know personally.” Devlin smiled. “It seems that someone is going around disrupting businesses and exposing nefarious criminals and ne’er-do-wells to public scrutiny. It’s had a chilling effect on short-term hires, as you can imagine.”

“Well, at least it isn’t all bad news.”

“Is there bad news I didn’t know about?”

I told him about my brief exchange with the Texan and my somewhat longer talk with the Lady, including the part where she’d lied about her screen name for no discernible reason. He listened patiently, only interjecting once to ask for a point of clarification about how secure my newest workstation was.

By the time I’d finished, Devlin had moved away from the door to lean against a dresser closer to the bed. He uncrossed his arms and ran both hands through his hair as he digested this latest information. “So,” he said finally, “does this mean we’re on our own?”

“As much as we ever are,” I answered. “If the Texan has information we can use to find the rest of the Community, though, then we’ll at least have allies to look forward to hunting down. Temporary allies, at the very best, but it’s better than nothing.”

“I guess.”

His marked lack of enthusiasm mirrored my own. I didn’t feel the need to vocalize those thoughts, though, since he so obviously understood them. There was a comfortable familiarity to that, I realized.

Devlin’s phone beeped twice at the same instant that mine vibrated on the desk. I finished the email to the Lady while he checked the incoming message.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Your grandmother,” Devlin said. “She’s got a flight heading to Dallas in about four hours.”

“Already? That was fast.”

“Sometimes, I think you forget what your own last name is. She’s a Ford. If she wanted to get a private jet, she could probably have gotten us out of Atlanta even faster than this.”

I hadn’t necessarily forgotten about my lineage; I’d just grown used to using our finances to purchase low-key flights that wouldn’t attract unnecessary attention. He was right, though. Virginia could have commandeered a plane to take her wherever she wanted at a moment’s notice and few people would have blinked at the expense.

“Will you be ready to go, or should I ask her to look for something later?” Devlin asked.

I looked around at the bedroom. It wasn’t the same room I’d spent so much of my childhood in, but it was damn close. There were no posters on the wall and few clothes in the opened closet. Several pieces of electronic equipment were scattered around the space – some on the bed, a few peripherals on the floor – while my workstation hummed quietly. When that was dissembled into its constituent pieces and packed up, the bedroom would resemble a storage space more than an area where someone had lived, even if only for just a few days.

I wasn’t sure how I should feel about that, but I certainly didn’t feel good.

“I’ll be ready to go,” I said. In a way, I supposed that I already was.

 

Chapter 63

To her credit, it only took fifteen minutes to persuade Virginia to book a flight, even without offering her any of the juicy details she wanted.  Between Michel, Devlin, and myself, we managed to convince her that there would be time to discuss matters later, but that action was required now.  Besides, the sooner we were on the flight to Texas, the sooner we’d be able to deal with the threat represented by the Mouse and his handlers.  It was just more pragmatic for her to find a plane than to continue asking us questions we resolutely sidestepped.

She excused herself after we convinced her – or, more likely, after she decided that she had a greater chance of weaseling out answers if she attacked us one on one later – in order to make the necessary phone calls.  The Ford Company didn’t have any local affiliates in the greater Texas area, but we could always create some reason to visit.  No one was going to look too carefully into the flight patterns of an octogenarian, even one who was traveling with her wayward granddaughter and a cadre of strange men.

Michel and Devlin made their own exits shortly after Virginia.  Michel professed a desire to rest his eyes and Devlin claimed that there were dangling questions in the local underworld hiding spots, some of which might provide us with additional information, but I wasn’t sure that I believed their reasons.  Michel typically fell asleep later in the evening, usually in the AM, for only a few hours; Devlin’s story held up better, but I knew him well enough to generally tell when he was only telling part of the truth.

No, they hadn’t left me to sew up matters in Atlanta before our departure.  They’d wanted to leave me alone with Mila.

She seemed to grasp their intentions, if the subtly pronounced line of her jaw was any indication, but she said nothing for a long time.  I resolved to hold my own tongue, as well, and I managed to stick fast to that resolution for a whole thirty seconds before the tension in the room drove me to speak.

“So, are you going to say it?” I asked.

Mila searched her immediate surroundings for a few moments.  She located the object of her search – a piece of hard candy – before answering.  “Say what?”

“You know what.  You were right, I was wrong.  I shouldn’t have gone to meet the Mouse in person.”

“Why would I say that?”

“Because you told me not to and I didn’t listen.  Your whole job is protecting us and you can’t do that if I’m just going to do my own thing everytime the mood strikes me.”

Because you wouldn’t have let yourself get trapped like that, I thought. But I kept that to myself.

“No,” Mila said, “that’s not what I mean.  I mean, literally, why would I say that?  What would the point be?  You made a mistake.  It happens.  Don’t make it again, if you can help it.”

I stared at her.  The words made sense…almost too much sense.  I’d known that Mila was detached, but her sanguine attitude didn’t fit neatly into the framework I’d mentally constructed for this conversation.  She was supposed to act superior, pricking neatly at my ego without ever seeming to do so on purpose, until we reached some form of mutual agreement.  A casual acceptance of my fault, without any accompanying malice or even emotion, was too placid for me to react to.

At least, it should have been too placid for a reaction.  I was still holding onto a lot of internal tension, though, and the conversation I’d anticipated would have been a useful way to blow off some steam.  As it was, Mila didn’t appear to be willing to give me anything to push back against.  Some embarrassingly large part of my mind decided that peaceful acceptance wasn’t going to be enough.

“You make it sound so easy,” I said.  My voice was just a hair snider than before.  I heard it, hated myself for it, but couldn’t stop the minuscule audio sneer.  “What would you have done in that situation?”

Mila took another bite of her candy, chewed thoughtfully, and then shrugged.  “I don’t have a lot of friends,” she said.  “So I don’t really know what I would have done.  Maybe gotten a better idea of the layout before walking into a trap?”

“You didn’t wait before you saved Devlin’s life,” I pointed out.  “And that was in the middle of a fire, when you didn’t even have an escape plan.”

“That wasn’t because of friendship,” Mila said.  “That was a job.  I was hired to protect him, so I did.”

“So we aren’t your friends, then?”

That got her attention.  Mila put down the remaining half of her candy and raised her eyes to meet mine.  She wasn’t pained by my jab – of course not, Mila couldn’t be harmed in that way – but there was a shadow of some familiar old hurt in the corner of one eye.  It reminded me of the expression on Fatima’s face, when she’d taken her place atop the Rubbish Throne.  There was a distance there, something vast enough to separate two interior worlds from one another, and the reflection of that gap was in her eyes.

Mila cleared her throat.  “I didn’t say that.  I just meant that I didn’t do the warehouse, specifically, because of our shared past or whatever.”

I could’ve let her drop there.  I should have let it end at the very beginning, before the conversation made it much farther past the point of impugning our relationship.  This was the sort of argument that opened rifts and chasms in a team.

My mouth kept moving, though.  Pent-up anger and humiliation, forced through the choke point of my mouth, took on a frankly acidic tone.  “So you’re saying you would have let him die?”

“The Mouse?  I mean now, yeah.”

“He wasn’t always working for them,” I said.  I had no idea if that was actually true, but it sounded right.  “He could have needed our help.”

“And so you went to give it to him,” Mila said.  She stood up from her seat.  “Without training or protection.”

“I can protect myself.”

“Obviously.”  She spoke the word with a shocking amount of sarcasm.  I hadn’t known her to be capable of mustering that level of passion, excepting the palpable fear she’d radiated while in Aiden’s presence.

“Listen, you –“

“No, you listen,” Mila said, cutting me off without bothering to raise her voice.  “You and Devlin and Michel are all determined to run this team like Robin Hood and his merry men, which is fine.  Really, it’s fine.  But you can’t expect me to understand or agree with every side trip you let yourself get distracted by.”

She had a point.  Mila never made a secret of her emotional detachment.  We’d known about it from the very beginning.  Just because she’d deigned to join our team, long-term, didn’t mean that she’d consented to change the way her mind worked.  Or, for that matter, that she had even the slightest desire to do so.

She was still speaking.  “What I can do, though, is make sure that you all get out of this alive.  That’s my job, that’s why you guys keep me around, and that’s what I’m going to do.  Understand?”

I couldn’t find a flaw in her argument, but that didn’t stop me from trying.  “What’re you going to do, then?  Attach yourself to me at the hip, just in case I end up in trouble again?”

Mila shrugged.  “If that’s what it takes.  But I’m thinking it might be easier to teach you some things you actually can use, for when you eventually end up in a bad situation.”

In my emotional state, it took me a moment to grasp her meaning.  Mila had, of course, tried to teach all of us basic self-defense in the wake of the London affair.  Devlin had the physical dexterity for the lessons, but he lacked the instinct.  Given an opportunity to flee, he was more likely to evade or run away from a problem than confront it head-on.  Michel…I wasn’t sure what the progress of Michel’s training was, since he and Mila traditionally conducted their practices in the wee hours of the morning.  Presumably, he was doing well; I never heard her chastise him in public over some private mistake, at least.

I, on the other hand, had conclusively demonstrated a stunning lack of aptitude for physical violence.  I didn’t have Devlin’s grace or Michel’s stubborn desire to learn anything combat related.  In fact, I’d only been in a few direct confrontations since committing fully to the Lady’s cause and I’d only engaged in those because I literally hadn’t seen any other options.

Mila claimed an inability to read people, but she must have seen something in my expression.  “Trust me, I know.  But I’ll have to think of something or you’re going to get yourself killed trying to do everything by yourself.”  She found another two or three pieces of candy, pocketed them, and stood up from the table.

“Where are you going?” I asked, feeling stupider with every syllable.  There were few things more frustrating than picking a fight with someone who refused to fight back, but I’d gone too far to pull back now.  Better to look like a stubborn idiot than an idiot without conviction.

“We’ve got another trip coming up, don’t we?”

I nodded.

“What are you going to offer him?”

There hadn’t been much chance to think about that.  “I don’t know yet.”

 

“There’s really only one thing we’ve got that we can use,” Mila said.  “Anyway, I’ve done some work around Texas, so I can reach out to my contacts in the area.  It won’t stop your friend from hiring the local lowlifes, but I can at least make sure he doesn’t have access to any skilled labor.”

“No one knows we’re going there,” I said.  As soon as the words left my mouth, I realized that there was at least one person I should probably reach out to before stepping onto the flight.

“No one knows yet,” Mila corrected.  “Call me crazy, but I’m not going to let my guard down until we’ve got this Mouse handcuffed to a chair in front of us.  Maybe not even then.  Unless you think he isn’t that dangerous?”

I opened my mouth to say something clever, realized that there simply wasn’t anything available to fit that description, and sighed instead.  “No,” I said. “No, you’re right.  Better to be safe than sorry.”

“That’s what I figured.”

Mila strode toward the kitchen’s exit.  I raised my voice just before she stepped out of sight, desperate to get the last word in.  “Just make sure you’re ready to leave!”

She gave me the ‘okay’ signal without turning around to respond.

I sat alone in the kitchen for a full minute, stewing silently over the…had it been an argument?  A discussion?  Whatever term applied to the conversation between Mila and me, I felt profoundly unsatisfied by its conclusion.  She hadn’t attacked me, like I’d expected, and she hadn’t demonstrated any perceived superiority either.  She’d pointed out my mistake – which, coupled with my own frequent self-recriminations, raised the number of critiques to somewhere in the triple digits – but she hadn’t seemed particularly interested in rehashing the matter.

With an effort, I put the talk out of my mind and focused on larger issues.  We needed information and the Texan was possibly the best and only option available for us.  We’d have to give him something in return but, with his assistance, there was a slight chance at gaining the intelligence necessary to turn the tables on the Mouse.

Finding the Texan, though, was going to be the most difficult part of the next step.  In his position, I wouldn’t set down roots in any specific location.

I left the kitchen and headed up to my room.  The new system that I’d pieced together sat, still untested, in one corner.  That was a small blessing, at least.  Any tools I’d connected to the internet, at any point, could have been compromised by the Mouse.  This new system, subpar though it was, had only been used to calculate raw numbers.  Without a prior connection to exploit, there wasn’t any way for the Mouse to seize control.  And, since I hadn’t compiled the two images necessary for the malware’s payload to deliver, he couldn’t use this system to attack me without already knowingexactly who and what to target.

At that point, subtlety wouldn’t really matter anymore.

Using a long Ethernet cable, I physically connected the workstation to the second floor router and logged on.  I avoided going to any of the websites or forums that Irene would use, just in case the Mouse was watching IP addresses, and opened up my corporate email address instead.  There were only a few messages stored there; I’d never really worked at the family business and the few emails in the inbox were mass-messages, sent out to everyone within a given mailing list.  I ignored those and hit reply on the email I’d received a few days ago from the Texan.  I toyed with a few different opening lines – was “to the Texan” appropriate, or should I go with something more pithy? – before deciding to jump straight in.

 

We made one deal: my name for your information.  Why don’t we make another?  I’ve got something you’re really going to want and I think we might be able to come to an arrangement.

 

I looked over the message, then hit send.  I only had enough time to delete a few outdated emails before the reply came.  He used the same address as before, which struck me as odd for several seconds before I realized that an information dealer nobody could reach wouldn’t be of much use to anyone who needed to employ his services.

 

Miss Ford:

What exactly are you offering and what are you asking for?  Can’t go around making deals without knowing what you’re selling, after all.

 

Of all the information I’d learned since returning to the job, there were several secrets that people would literally die for.  The Magi were both capable of and amenable to open, unabashed murder, if that was necessary to keep their shadowy existence under wraps.  The Lady was…potentially less willing to kill us out of hand, but then she didn’t really have to get actively involved in the first place.  If revealing her agenda would endanger her ultimate goal, I didn’t doubt that she’d out us herself and let the chips fall where they may.

There was one thing, though, that was absolutely certain to grab his attention.  Mila had been right, yet again.  I clicked reply and typed out a brief message.

 

Wouldn’t you like to know who’s been disrupting the Underworld lately?  Meet me, in person, and we can make a deal.

 

I sent the message and waited for the response.  When none arrived after thirty seconds, I started to worry.  What if the Texan already knew about our secret agenda?  Or, it occurred to me, what if he was a target of said agenda?  The Magi could be anyone, anywhere.  I wouldn’t put anything past the members of a shadowy cabal, even pretending to be an affable, somewhat low-level trade of secrets.  It would be a good way to keep a figurative finger to the pulse of the various criminal communities.

When I still didn’t have a reply after five minutes, I actually began sweating.  That could have been due to the rising temperature of the Georgia morning or could it have been because of my anxieties ratcheting up.  I’d expected a response, even a negative one, but silence was impossible to read. The Texan could be weighing his options, deciding what outing the scion of the Ford family would be worth.  If the Mouse didn’t get his hands on my Irene identity, my true occupation would be devastating to a great many legitimate business interests.  I could only imagine the damage it would cause the family business, to say nothing of my actual family members.

In the end, it took thirty minutes before another email appeared in my inbox.  The email arrived without fanfare or warning.  I’d begun pacing back and forth across my room, visiting and revisiting every decision I’d made since leaving Tangiers when the computer beeped to inform me of an incoming message.  I didn’t need to open the file; the preview that popped up at the bottom right of the screen was large enough to display the email’s contents.

 

Come to Blind Alley, no later than nine in three days.  You can figure out where that is.  I’ll finish up my business and then we can talk shop.  Looking forward to seeing you again.

 

Somehow, the response didn’t settle my nerves any.